Structural Engineering

By John Gilstrap

For the 29th time in 29 books in a row, I find myself in the same predicament: roughly a month to go before deadline and woefully behind where I want to be. And not to sound cocky and not to jinx things, I’m confident that somehow, for the 29th time in 29 books in a row, I’m going to pull it all together and cross the line before the buzzer.

The book on the X at the moment is Burned Bridges (Spring/Summer, 2025), the first installment of my new series featuring Irene Rivers, the FBI Director from the Jonathan Grave series. The very existence of the series is a bit of a spoiler for the next Grave book, Zero Sum (August, 2024), but that’s pretty much unavoidable. Because this is the first book in a series, I’m taking my time in building the world in which she lives in West Virginia. It’s bucolic yet corrupt–I write thrillers, after all–but my corrupt players are smart and educated, just like the vast majority of real West Virginians I’ve come to know since we moved here.

Also, the Irene Rivers series will not be Jonathan Grave with a female protagonist. This series will be more subtle. Less explosive. Driven out of Washington by the political implosion she caused, she’s living out in the country now on inherited family land, trying to reconnect with her kids and be as invisible as possible. To give herself a little something to do, she hangs out her shingle as a private investigator.

Last week, as I crossed the 75,000-word mark, I realized that I’d created a problem for myself. I had characters I really liked doing interesting things with snappy dialogue to solve perplexing problems. What I didn’t have was a pervasive sense of menace. No one felt the presence of danger–including the reader, I’m afraid. I had big reveals planned for the third act in the midst of big violence, but I hadn’t given the reader a reason yet to recognize who my bad guys were, let alone dread their presence in a scene. Third act reveals don’t matter if readers aren’t still there to experience them.

Remember, I write thrillers, and one of the chief differences between my genre and mysteries is that it’s fine for the reader to have more perfect knowledge than the protagonist. I realized that instead of saving all the good stuff for the third act, I needed to open up a parallel storyline for my bad guys and transfer some of the violence up front. Right away, the pacing improved, and my bad guys started to feel more real to me. We come to see that much of the bad they do is necessary in their minds to prevent larger problems from being uncovered. Readers might not agree with their methods, but at least they’ll understand their motivations. The additional storyline also grants the impression of time passing between Irene’s scenes as she moves from place to place.

When I teach master classes–as I will be in September at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference in Denver–I emphasize that a story is an engineered product. The purpose of the product is to take readers on an emotional journey with characters that feel real to them. The writer is the engineer who makes every decision from yes or no on the Oxford comma to paragraph length to the perfect balance of action, description and dialogue. If I do my job right with these latest changes, the casual readers of Burned Bridges will have no idea that certain plot points exist where they do as the result of late-in-the-cycle structural repairs. Instead, they will feel perfectly organic to the story.

When things don’t feel right on a project, never hesitate to pump the brakes and take a hard look at what might be pulling your narrative astray. If you find yourself working too hard to keep revealing secrets to your reader while still having a story that makes sense, consider a structural change that will allow the reader to know the secret and then concentrate instead on keeping the protagonist in the dark. That could be as simple as a POV change.

If you find yourself drowning in the choreography of a love scene or a fight scene, consider having your characters merely close the door or run away.

The engineering of a story depends on the niche you’re hoping to fill. I drive a very nice Jeep Wrangler while my wife drives a very nice BMW X3. We’re both very happy with our vehicles. Mine is louder and bouncier than hers on purpose, not as a mistake in engineering. A young wealthy neighbor drives a Porsche that is essentially a massive engine with wheels attached. Neither of our cars would scratch his itch. (I’ve never sat in his Porsche because I’m afraid someone would post a video of me trying to get out of it.)

Your turn, Zoners. Does this engineering approach resonate with your own approach to writing? If you’re a plotter, do you always avoid late term panic attacks like mine? Pantsers, can you relate?

When In Rome…Read

By PJ Parrish

Whenever I travel, I read. I mean, like a starving fool. I’ve given up trying to figure out why I don’t have a solid, disciplined reading habit here at home. Maybe I’m too distracted, and as you all know, reading — even for pleasure — requires you to purposefully set aside time. Sort of like being romantic within marriage. Or exercise.

So while in Italy for two weeks recently, I read like crazy. First up, in Rome, was a riveting history of how Michelangelo came to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I’ve been fascinated by this ego-tug between artist and pope ever since I saw The Agony and the Ecstacy in 1965. Charleton Heston and Rex Harrison chewing up the scenery during the Italian Renaissance — che bello!

I never read Irving Stone’s bio-novel on which the film is based. Should have, but glad I didn’t because the book I did read, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King was unputdownable. I found the book at one of our neighborhood library boxes two days before I left for Rome. Serendipity, indeed. One passage:

The pope grew so incensed at Michelangelo’s slow progress and impudent replies that he thrashed him with a stick. Michelangelo had wished to return to Florence for a feast day, but Julius stubbornly refused him permission on the grounds the artist had made so little headway on the project.

“Well, but when will you have this chapel finished?”

“As soon as I can, Holy Father,” replied Michelangelo.

This exchange turns up in the movie thusly:

Pope Julius: When will you make an end?

Michelangelo: When I am finished.

I think the screenwriter improved the dialogue here some, no? Which brings me to my point today. It never ceases to amaze me how much a movie and its book can differ. Sometimes the movie is a sad shadow of a book. But very often, the movie surpasses its source. Not in this case because for me, as much as I love the movie, King’s non-fiction account, as one review put it, wipes away the smudges from the story.

Once out of Rome and into the countryside, I delved into my second Italian literary adventure — Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. We were in Tuscany, not Venice, yet being in tiny Italian aeries, I felt at times like I was hearing Ripley’s footsteps echoing on the wet cobblestones.


Now I really like the movie with Matt Damon and Judd Law. But I was riveted by the new Netflix series Ripley. The latter’s black and white cinematography (above) is just stunning. Chiaroscuro — a lovely Italian word that translates as “light-dark” — is a film technique wherein contrasts are sharpened to a haunting effect, often to stress a character’s moral ambiguity. Ripley reminded me of one of my favorite characters, Harry Lime in The Third Man. It’s another noir masterpiece that uses the chiaroscuro technique.

But it also brought to mind The Godfather. Though shot in color, the movie’s contrasts of light and dark symbolize the battle of good and evil waging not just in the Corleone clan but in all men. Cinematographer Gordon Willis was renowned for this style. Director Coppola said of Willis: “Like a Renaissance painter, his images are bold, striking.”

Chiaroscura is a Renaissance concept, of course. Da Vinci used it to turn Lisa del Giocondo into a cheshire cat. Caravaggio, who Ripley is obsessed with, used it to bathe his religious figures in holy light in contrast to lowly humans. But I digress…

I am still finishing Patricia Highsmith’s novel. This is from her book, just after Tom has bashed in Dickie’s head and scuttled the boat in an isolated cove:

At sundown, just the hour when the Italians and everybody else in the village had gathered at the sidewalk tables or the cafe, freshly showered and dressed, staring at everybody and everything that passed by, eager for whatever entertainment the town could offer, Tom walked into the village wearing only his swimming shorts and sandals and Dickie’s corduroy jacket, and carrying his blood-stained trousers and jacket under his arm.

Has there ever been a more captivating sociopath? I am loving this book, just as I have loved all three Ripley movies. Yes, there is a third — Alain Delon as Tom Ripley in the 1960 French thriller Plein soleil (Full Sun). No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man, behind blue eyes.

Highsmith’s book is one example, I can attest, where the movies equal the book. And the book does not disappoint.

Whew. Just re-read this post. A little winded and wandering again. Hope you don’t mind. But I had a great time in Italy with Michelangelo and Tom. I leave you all with an open-eneded but related question:

What books have made for really bad movies? Or more intriguing, what movies turned out better than their books? I’ll start: The Bridges of Madison County. Which is a long long ways from Rome.


Postscript: Archie the condo-bound chihuahua, having a field day in the hills of Tuscany.


Emotional Trigger Words + The Id

A trigger word is a word that evokes a strong emotional reaction to compel someone to act. The reaction could be anything from clicking an article, opening an email, or buying a product. Like with most things in life, we don’t want to abuse trigger words. If used ethically, trigger words can help our books/newsletters/blog/articles reach a wider audience.

How are Emotional Triggers Formed?

The same way we trigger emotion in readers—tickle the senses. Some of our most powerful memories include the smell, sound, or taste of certain things when associated with a positive or negative connotation. But trigger words work differently.

All decisions made by us or others consist of multiple conscious and subconscious emotions. By delving into the psychology behind human behavior, we can increase sales and visibility.

4 Emotional Triggers

#1) Belonging

It’s human nature to want to belong to something. The writing community, a family, book clubs, critique groups, a religious organization, or other social groups. Giving people a sense of belonging works remarkably well. For example, I write “join my community” rather than “subscribe (which has a negative connotation) to my newsletter.” That little tweak makes a huge difference in how the message is received.

Trigger words for belonging

  • Community
  • Join
  • Become a member
  • Mutual
  • We
  • Together
  • Society
  • Neighborhood

#2) Fear

I can’t see why authors would want to use a fear tactic, but it’s listed as a marketing ploy. Though you could use fear triggers as keywords or in a book description.

Trigger words for fear

  • Worry
  • Anxiety
  • Concern
  • Terror
  • Death
  • Toxic
  • Mistake
  • Embarrassed
  • Nightmare
  • Doubt
  • Phobia
  • Horrific
  • Disastrous
  • Plummet
  • Warning
  • Danger
  • Looming
  • Shattered

#3) Guilt

Guilt is a powerful emotion, right? Charity organizations overuse this tactic. For us, triggering a guilt response would not be an effective way to market books. But we can use the trigger words in book descriptions or as keywords/key phrases for better targeting.

Trigger words for guilt

  • Goodwill
  • Humane
  • Disgrace
  • Shame
  • Disgusting
  • Charity
  • Donation
  • Mercy
  • Kindness
  • Empathy
  • Generosity
  • Compassion
  • Bleed for
  • Sympathize with
  • Feel for
  • Grief
  • Sorrow
  • Understand

#4) Trust

Trust is important for building a long-term business. When readers trust you to deliver the same quality in each book, article, or newsletter, you’ll build a loyal audience. Don’t try to fake this emotion, or it’ll backfire.

A few ways to show you’re trustworthy

  • Be transparent
  • Display reviews from other readers
  • Be genuine
  • Show you’re human, not perfect

In one newsletter, I wrote, “I have no words of wisdom for you today. The well is dry. I left all my emotions on the page.” I never once tried to fake it. And y’know what? I received the sweetest responses. Being emotionally spent is something we’ve all experienced, so we relate. We empathize.

Trigger words for trust

  • Caring
  • Fair treatment
  • Quality
  • Competency
  • Apologize
  • Sorry
  • Change
  • Never
  • Always
  • Privacy

The Pleasure Principle

In Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, he described the pleasure principle as the instinctual force that motivates people to seek pleasure, to satisfy biological and psychological needs, and to avoid pain. The id resides in a primitive part of the psyche and is the only part of the personality that’s present at birth. Which explains the terrible twos. The ego doesn’t develop till age three or four.

Three major components of personality

  • The id – impulsive part of one’s personality that is driven by pleasure and repulsed by pain
  • Ego – conscious part of one’s personality that mediates between the id and superego and makes decisions
  • Superego – judgmental and morally correct part of one’s personality

Freud conceived the id as the unconscious mind’s primary source of motivation for all human behavior, from basic wants and needs (think: hunger and thirst) to emotional expression, impulses (think: aggression), and sexual desires. The id acts according to the pleasure principle — it seeks to fulfill its needs and desires in any way possible while avoiding pain or discomfort.

We live in a world of immediate gratification. No longer do we need to wait for the stores to stock a new album or novel. We can download it in seconds.

Can you guess how social media might affect the balance of the three components of personality? Likes, comments, and shares feed the id while making it difficult for the ego to mediate the feud with the superego. Hence why some people feel the need to condemn others and cast judgment.

TKZers, have you considered using psychology in your marketing? Do you use trigger words in book descriptions, keywords, and/or marketing?

Please note: I’ll be on the road today and will respond to comments later this afternoon. Hope you all have a fabulous day!

Going for the Gold

Back in my larval stages, which occurred in the mid-1960s, my buddy Gary Selby and I were partners in a field day event called the Three-Legged Race. Field Day was how they ended the school year back then, and the late May air was perfumed with fresh-mown grass, gardenias from some lady’s yard across the street, and dill pickles.

Beneath the scraggly elm trees outside our old school, the teachers sold those delicious green mouth puckers as a fund raiser for the next year. After I was grown and became a middle school teacher, I figured out they used the money for a much-needed end-of-the-year happy hour. They also sold cheap homemade Cokes and Dr Peppers (syrup from clear gallon jugs hand-mixed with tap water), weakly flavored snow cones, and popcorn that didn’t sell the year before.

There were other drinks of course. Water in a five-gallon metal water cooler they filled from the hose, and if an elementary student was brave, a Suicide (Coke, Dr Pepper and pickle juice).

All for a dime each. Even the hose water, because it had ice in it.

At the starting line that warm sunny day, Coach tied my right leg to Gary’s left, and we waited for the starting pistol with our arms over the others’ shoulders. At the crack, we were off in fine rhythm, and had a great lead by the time we were five yards from the finish line. That’s when the knot came untied. We crossed as victors, but were disqualified by a sour old math teacher, and I lost the only opportunity to win a ribbon or trophy in my entire twelve years of public school.

I didn’t win a darn thing for the next fifteen years until I took a college course in photography to supplement my assignment as a middle school photo teacher and placed first in the Silhouette category. I had that trophy in my office until it disappeared in a move several years ago.

All this leads back to one day in the 6th grade when I came across a Newberry Medal winning book in the school library titled, Across Five Aprils. I picked up that little novel because of the gold emblem on the cover and absorbed it in one sitting, sparking a lifelong interest in the War of Northern Aggression.

Finishing that, I looked for other books Newberry winners such as Island of the Blue Dolphins. Those titles took me to Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and ultimately, and this is a weird connection, The Old Man and the Sea and my introduction to Hemingway, which intersected with Steinbeck and eventually Robert Ruark, the writing mentor I never met.

Newberry made me aware of Caldecott Awards, and when I got older, Spur Awards on westerns caught my attention. Hugos, Edgars, the ITW, and Pulitzers to name only a few told me these authors, and ultimately their works, were worth reading.

Awards and the resulting recognition are important personal achievements that can stimulate a flagging author. Writer awards are also a great way to fast track a literary career. They provide professional recognition among your peers, and in my case, are a significant source of personal satisfaction.

Awards are endorsements of your book, and therefore, showcase your talent. They tell the world that the novel you bled for is worthy of the price and can be an incentive for online shoppers to add more titles to their list, or cart. They boost self-confidence and self-esteem, and impress the heck out of potential agents and publishers.

Most of those awards I’m familiar with don’t bring in much in the way of instant cash, and I’m not talking about grant awards which is an entirely different discussion, but recognition among literary peers serves as a springboard to help authors rise above the relative obscurity of thousands of books published each year.

My first novel, The Rock Hole, won the Benjamin Franklin Award, and at the time I had no idea what it meant to a budding career. The folks at Poisoned Pen Press had to explain that one to me (as well as the importance of Starred Reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and a host of others). I had my sights set on others, too. They served as personal goals and milestones, that kept me plugging along.

At one point confidence sagged, and I seriously wondered what I was doing at the keyboard, but a Spur Award from the Western Writers of America came my way, and then another, along with Will Rogers Medallions, and I was back on the mental track to keep plugging along. Because of renewed enthusiasm, I kept at it and that led to several honors and accolades now hang on the walls of my office. When I have any doubts about my work, and all authors do at some point, I only have to look up and am once again energized.

The addition to mentioning awards on your website, Facebook, Instagram, or any other platform that showcases your work, this recognition can lead to an increase in sales. When marketing, they lift your brand, and help others celebrate your success in this race to be recognized as professional authors.

Mentioning that you’re a finalist on social media can put you on a stage in which others share your anticipation and excitement, maintaining interest and conversation for months at a time as everyone waits for that announcement. Those who might know only your name can be prompted to look up your backlist and elevate sales.

Don’t hesitate to enter these contests, even though winning might a longshot in your own mind. Sure you might lose, but you’ve already taken a whale of a step by getting that novel published, so don’t let self-doubt dissuade you. Some of these have entry fees, so research those you’re interested in. Don’t hesitate to reach out to other established writers to make sure they’re legit. There are a lot of scams out there. Other competitions are financed by grants or outside entities, and only require copies for submission and no fees.

Writing contests are also a source of great satisfaction when you place. Some of you might have heard of the late Pat McManus, the legendary and hysterically funny columnist for Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. He and I became friends decades ago, and he urged me to enter a Humor Category in a contest sponsored by the Outdoor Writers of America. I did, and my column came in first with Pat taking second. He called to congratulate me, and the excitement in his voice was worth as much as the paper certificate I framed.

The honor of winning that contest sparked me to work harder on a writing career.

Even seasoned writers are excited to hear their latest novel has been honored with such recognition. I was humbled to stand in front of a banquet hall full of writers I’d read for years and accept my first Spur. It was a goal and dream come true.

But don’t be disappointed if you don’t make the cut right off the bat, or even after several attempts until you finally succeed. Participation ribbons aren’t part of this business, so just square your shoulders, congratulate those who won, and keep trying.

As I always say in all things. Never give up.


Reader Friday-What’s Your AKA?

By Deb Gorman

A nickname is a substitute for the proper name of a person, place or thing. It is commonly used to express affection, amusement, a character trait or defamation of character. It is distinct from a pseudonym, stage name or title, although the concepts can overlap. Nicknames are typically informal. Wikipedia

Doing just a cursory search on the internet of the word nickname yielded some doozies–especially those from the middle ages. It might be worth a laugh or two for you to take a look.

Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)



I came across Benjamin Siegel, AKA Bugsy. I tried to discover why he acquired that moniker, but couldn’t find the origin. I did find out that his killer was never brought to justice.

I guess a cool nickname doesn’t mean much when you’re a bad guy.


I had a couple when I was a wee lass. My siblings called me Debo (pronounced Dee-bo), and my dad called me Housemouse–because I preferred being in the house reading instead of out of the house playing. My dad and brother still call me those names on occasion.

Or, just these . . .

And this one from a way long time ago!






How about you, TKZers? Did you ever have a nickname growing up, cool or otherwise? Does anyone still call you by that name? And, do you give your characters nicknames?

Do tell  . . .

Old Dog Learns New Trick

by Debbie Burke



Public domain photo


When it comes to learning new technology tricks, I’m definitely an old dog. But if there’s a way to learn a new trick in a program I already use, rather than having to master a whole new program, I’m thrilled.

In this case, the new trick is in Word.

Recently I stumbled on a post by Wendy Lyons Sunshine entitled How to Teach Word a Scrivener Trick on Jane Friedman’s always informative blog.

Scrivener is a popular and powerful writing program that number of TKZers use and swear by. One Scrivener feature that’s always appealed to me is the corkboard. You write each scene on a virtual index card. Then if you discover problems with timeline or continuity, you can easily rearrange scene order.

Unfortunately, despite taking several classes in Scrivener, I never mastered the learning curve.

So I continue to use Word since it’s the preferred program for most publications I write for.

For my novel first drafts, I write in scenes, separated by white space and asterisks. In later drafts, I divide scenes into chapters. Some chapters are only one scene long, others are three to five scenes.

A problem arises when I write scenes out of order. That leads to a jumble of scenes that need to be rearranged before completing the final draft.

This is where we pantsers get in trouble. You outliners in the audience, feel free to smirk here.

Eventually I have to find those out-of-order scenes buried in the 75-80K manuscript and, using cut and paste, reposition them where they should be. But locating those scenes, as well as their new position, can be a pain in the posterior.

Being old school, I write a summary of each scene on a 3X5 card. I lay the deck of cards on the living room floor and rearrange them as needed until the scene order is correct.

But…the Word doc still needs to be changed. That requires a lot of scrolling back and forth to find the right scene, highlight and cut it, then more scrolling to paste it into its new location.

Yes, outliners, I hear you snickering. If you had an outline, this problem wouldn’t come up.

But it turns out Word has a trick to mark scenes so they’re easy to find.

Now I’ll give the floor to Wendy since she explains it very well. She graciously granted permission to quote the following excerpt:

“Insert descriptive headings throughout the manuscript. You might insert a heading above each:

  • Chapter
  • Section
  • Scene
  • Any unit of content that needs to be easily identified or moved.

The goal is to clearly identify where a chunk of content begins. By default, that chunk ends where the next chunk (denoted by a heading of the same level) begins.

Assign styles:

Open Word “Styles” and assign each of the descriptive headings a standardized heading style. Assign “heading 1” style to chapter titles, then assign “heading 2” to other types of content.

Open the Navigation Pane

Now that headings are set up, open the navigation pane via View > Show > Navigation Pane. The Navigation Pane will display vertically along the left of the screen. 

Use the Navigation Pane two ways. First, you can navigate to specific content by clicking on that specific heading. Second, and most wonderfully, you can reorganize content by dragging and dropping the headings. Navigation Pane headings behave much like Scrivener’s index cards and are easily shuffled around.

Dragging a heading moves all associated content together in one bundle. This works beautifully across a large document and is far easier than trying to cut/paste/or drag blocks many pages apart.

Fiction writers can adjust this approach for their needs by crafting headings to describe POV, scene, location, interiority, backstory, etc.”

Thanks for making my life easier, Wendy!

After reading her instructions, I went through my WIP (working title Fruit of the Poisonous Tree) and chose Heading 2 for the beginning of each scene. Still using Heading 2,  I wrote a brief summary of that scene, so it stands out easily in the manuscript.

Now, within the Word doc, I can easily jump to the summary of each scene. No more wasted time, scrolling through pages, searching for the parts that need to be cut and pasted to different locations.

When the scenes are in correct order, then I’ll place the chapter breaks, using Heading 1.  That makes formatting easy for Kindle Direct Publishing and Draft2Digital.

Best of all, this new trick is within Word so I don’t need to learn a whole new program to accomplish what I need.

Photo credit: Lars Curfs CC-BY-SA-3.0

Now I’m still an old dog, but a happy one.


Many thanks to Wendy Lyons Sunshine and Jane Friedman for their kind permission to quote.



TKZers, were you aware of this capability in Word?

How do you keep track of scenes and rearrange them in your manuscript?

Do you know any other Word tricks to share?

Running and Writing
  and the Marathon

Come what may, all bad fortune is to be conquered by endurance.  –Virgil

* * *

Writing a novel is often compared to running a marathon, and my experience dealing with the unexpected in the London Marathon in April 2010 was a good rehearsal for my later efforts in writing.

I’ve never been a good marathon runner. I’m better suited for the half-marathon. But in 2009, having completed three marathons (San Antonio, Vancouver, and Toronto), I decided I’d go for just one more. And I wanted to run one of the big marathons for that once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I told my husband I’d like to celebrate our anniversary in 2010 with a trip to the UK where I would run the London Marathon in honor of our marriage. Then we could spend a week or so vacationing. Frank was supportive, and for some unknown reason, I was convinced everything would go my way.


The major marathons are so popular that they can’t admit everyone who wants to enter. If you’re a very good runner and can meet the qualifying time for your age group, you’ll be entered. But if you’re like most runners (me, for instance) and can’t meet the qualifying time, they’ll put your name into a lottery and it’s just a matter of chance.

So when they opened the online registration in April 2009, I jumped in and registered along with 150,000 other runners. Although only about a quarter of those would get places, I was ridiculously confident. Around October, I received an email from the London Marathon notifying me that I wasn’t chosen. Rats.

But they held out another possibility. I could run for a charity. “That’s even better,” I thought. I could do a good deed as well as run the marathon. So I applied to several of the charities that I thought I’d like to support, and a few weeks later, one of them called. With about four months to go, I had cleared the first hurdle. I was in the race.

I was sure that from then on everything would be smooth sailing. (You can smile now.)

My running buddies at work were all excited that I was going to run the London, and that made me even more determined to do well. When they asked what kind of time I was planning on, I spouted off a near-impossible-for-me number. But if everything went perfectly, maybe I could make it.

Everything did not go perfectly.

  • Our treadmill, on which I was doing almost half of my training, broke. We needed a new one anyway, so we bought a bigger, better model. A few days of training lost.
  • I injured my knee in a tempo run. A couple of weeks of training lost.

I had stumbled over those first hurdles, but my excitement continued to ramp up as the days ticked closer to the race. Since I suffer from jetlag on international trips, we planned to fly to London six days prior to the marathon to allow my body to adjust to the time change before the race. But then…disaster.

  • A few days before our scheduled departure, I woke up to the news that a volcano in Iceland had erupted, volcanic ash was drifting over western Europe, and airports were closing. Heathrow was one of them. Our flight was cancelled.

You can overcome a lot of obstacles. But a volcano? Time to throw in the towel.

But then the winds shifted, and airports reopened. We managed to get on a flight that put us in London in the early morning hours of Friday before Sunday’s race day. Okay, so my jetlag would be a problem, but the excitement of the race would probably overcome that. (Are you laughing yet?)

I dragged myself out of bed on race day after just a few hours of sleep to discover there were more obstacles: the weather was warm (not good) and it was drizzling rain (super not good). Frank and I agreed on where we’d meet after the race, and he walked me to the starting area to join the other thirty-seven thousand people who had paid perfectly good money to punish their bodies for 26.2 miles.

But at least I had made it to the starting line. Now all I had to do was finish.

The London Marathon is unique. It’s a big party, and many of the marathoners wear costumes. One guy was dressed in a full suit of armor and someone else was carrying a huge replica of the Angel of the North sculpture on his back.

As time ticked down to the start, you could feel the buzz in the air. After an entire year of waiting, hoping, training, and planning, the starter’s pistol fired, and we were off.

I wish I could say everything went well.

  • For the first time ever, my GPS watch malfunctioned. Bad omen.
  • Another first: I got a side stitch. At least now I can describe in a book what it feels like to be stabbed just below the ribs.
  • As the miles went on, fatigue set in, and I realized I was getting a blister on one of my heels.
  • By the time I got to the eighteen-mile mark, I was starving. I guess the time change had messed up my body clock. Honestly, if I had seen a child holding a sandwich by the side of the course, I probably would have snatched it out of the kid’s hand and run away before anyone could catch me. But there were no sandwiches, my back and foot hurt, and I was run-walking so slow that I knew I was going to turn in a terrible time.

* * *

That’s when I had THE THOUGHT. I could quit. I could just step off the course, find a volunteer to give me a cart-ride to the finish, and it would be over. I wouldn’t suffer the embarrassment of a poor showing. I’d just tell everybody I was injured and couldn’t finish. I could bandage my foot and take an Advil and eat a steak dinner and forget this stupid marathon. The whole thing was wrong from the start. Why hadn’t I seen that? Why did I have to be so stubborn when there were just too many problems to overcome?

That little exercise in self-pity and frustration got me through the next mile or two. Then I had the SECOND THOUGHT. I would cross the finish line even if I had to crawl. Even if I was the last person across. Even if they had taken down the banners and all the volunteers had gone home and I didn’t get a medal or a T-shirt. Even if my feet were bleeding so profusely that I was leaving a trail of blood behind me on the course. (Self-martyrdom can be useful in certain situations.)

And I knew no matter how long it took, Frank would be waiting for me, and I knew exactly what he’d say when he saw me. After all, this was the race to honor our marriage, not to show off my great (ha!) running talent.

Those reflections got me through another mile or two, and then I was within just a few miles of the finish, so it didn’t make sense to quit.

I crossed the finish line. I didn’t crawl, and I wasn’t the last person in the race. There were still a couple of thousand people behind me, including angel sculpture man and the guy in the suit of armor. A volunteer hung a medal around my neck and someone else handed me a T-shirt that said “LonDONE 25.04.10.” Then I walked into the meeting area and saw Frank waving. As I limped toward him with my hair frizzy from the rain and my clothes damp with sweat, he jogged over and put his arm around me. “Great race, honey.”

* * *

So yeah. Writing a novel, especially a first one, is a lot like running a marathon. You start out with all this enthusiasm and confidence, but then things get hard, much harder than you thought. There are unexpected challenges, and it’s discouraging when agents and publishers don’t immediately see your genius and rush to sign you to a life-long contract.

That’s when many people give up. They hit the wall and decide it’s not worth all the pain and disappointment. According to, only about 3% of people who start writing a book actually finish it. And of those, even fewer have their book published. But for those of us who stay in the race, there’s a satisfaction of accomplishment few have known.

I learned some lessons from the London Marathon that I believe apply to my writing.

  • Life (and running and writing) is more about what you put into it than what you get out.
  • It’s more about fighting the good fight than winning.
  • It’s more about the journey than the destination.
  • You value what you earn more than what someone gives you.

And in the long run (pun intended), whether it’s running or writing or living, endurance is more important than talent.

* * *


This has been a very long TKZ blog post, and if you made it to the end, you deserve a medal. Maybe you should consider running a marathon.



* * *

So TKZers: Have you ever run a marathon?
Have you faced obstacles when writing your books?
How do you deal with the setbacks?

* * *


Kathryn Frasier is training for her first marathon, but murderers keep getting in her way.

Run with Kathryn in The Watch Mysteries. The ebook boxset is on sale at  AmazonBarnes & NobleKoboGoogle Play, or Apple Books.

Reader Friday-What’s In Your Pet Pantry?

It almost escaped me, but May is National Pet Month!


This is Hoka, keeping company with me in my office. The head tilt says it all . . .

We’ve had cats and dogs over the years, but dogs are our favorites. Oreo, the black lab. Dok-dogi, the malamute. His name means “Smart Dog” in Korean. Bear, the Chow & Samoyed mix. And Hoka, the Smartest Dog in the Universe. So smart, she should go get a job and support us . . .

My blog post publishing June 11 on my website features all of these canine pals who’ve graciously shared our cave over the years. Go there on the 11th to see more pictures and read about their antics.

So, the questions for TKZ pet parents today are:


1) Do you presently have a pet; 2) Do you give your characters pets; and 3) Reaching back into your pet memory banks–what is or was your favorite pet of all time?


Mental Models — A Latticework of Critical Thinking

A mental model is a compression of how something works. Any idea, belief, or concept can be distilled down. Like a map, mental models reveal key information while ignoring irrelevant details. Models concentrate the world into understandable and useable chunks.

This quote is from Shane Parrish who hosts a fascinating blog and podcast called Farnam Street. I’ve subscribed to Shane’s site for years and look forward to his weekly newsletter that arrives every Sunday morning. It’s free, but you can purchase a more in-depth dive for only a few bucks a month. It’s worth every nickel.

An extensive piece that Shane put together is titled Mental Models: The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions (~ 100 Models Explained) that deals with thought experiments. He covers a vast array of subjects like Circle of Competence, Reciprocity, First Principle Thinking, Second Order Reasoning, Inversion, Probabilistics, Inertia, Leverage, Compounding, and Entropy. Here’s the link:

This is a short submission to the Kill Zone today. I’m on vacation and traveling for most of this Thursday. I can’t respond to comments till about noon PST, but I wanted to generate discussion around critical thinking and how it applies to our work as writers.

Who has heard of mental models and the latticework of integration into thought processing? Has anyone else tapped into Shane Parrish and his Farnam Street world? And who develops characters (like Sherlock Holmes) who use woven or latticed mental models in their thinking? Comments, please.  🙂

The Most Potent Little Gadget In Your Writer’s Toolbox

Dear Readers: I am still in Italy and out of touch. Our Wifi here is almost non-existent! So I hope you don’t mind a re-post. This is one of my favorites. See you soon. — PJ

Paragraphing is a way of dramatization, as the look of a poem on a page is dramatic; where to break lines, where to end sentences. — Joyce Carol Oates.

By PJ Parrish

Yesterday, Sue posted her critique of a First Page submission. On first read, I thought it was pretty good but something about it was bugging me. Then I just looked at it instead of reading it. It hit me that the paragraphing wasn’t quite right.

Paragraphing? Who cares about paragraphing? You just hit enter when it feels right, right? Nope. Proper paragraphing is one of the most underrated tools in your writer’s box. So allow me to wander into the weeds today and talk a little inside baseball. (I worked hard on that mixed metaphor, by the way)

Two main problems with the submission yesterday: The writer had made the common mistake of burying thoughts and dialogue within narrative.

Second problem: All the paragraphs are about the same length. Why is that a problem? Because it goes to pacing and rhythm. No variation in paragraphs is boring to the eye and that translates to boring for the reader’s imagination. But if you learn to master the fine but subtle art of judicious paragraphing, you can inject interest and even tension into your story.

Let’s address problem one first. This opening paragraph is essentially narrative. But inserted within that is both dialogue and thoughts. Here’s the paragraph:

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation. Unbelievable. “Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.” Her boss had clearly lost his mind. She spun on her hiking shoe, locking eyes with Senior Special Agent Matt Updike. Her fingers fidgeted with a button on her shirt. I deserve a second chance.

Dialogue and thoughts are ACTION. They deserve to be lifted out of narrative and given lines of their own so the reader can emotionally latch onto them, and by extension, your character. This opening paragraph would be more effective (and more interesting to the eye) if it were deconstructed with better paragraphing:

Arizona Powers slammed her palm into the office wall, ignoring the stinging sensation, and stared hard at her boss.

“Are you kidding me? I’m not doing that. I’m a federal agent, not a babysitter.”

Matt Updike shoved his chair backward, rose and closed the distance between them in two strides.

“I’m not kidding. You are doing this,” he said. “You don’t have a choice.”

She could smell his stale coffee breath and see a vein bulging in his neck, but she resisted the urge to step back. Her boss had clearly lost his mind. But she wasn’t going to take this. She deserved a second chance.

See the difference? The drama of the scene is enhanced by allowing the thoughts and dialogue to stand out — all by simple paragraphing. Here’s something interesting: The rewrite is LONGER but it reads FASTER. Why? Because the reader doesn’t need to ferret out the important thoughts and dialogue. It’s your job, as the writer, to mine out the nuggets for them.

Now let’s consider the basic question of length of paragraphs and how that affects your reader. How long should your paragraphs be? Sounds like a dumb question, but it’s not. You need to consider it deeply.

Let me re-quote this from Ronald Tobias’s The Elements of Fiction Writing: Theme & Strategy,

The rhythm of action and character is controlled by the rhythm of your sentences. You can alter mood, increase or decrease tension, and pace the action by the number of words you put in a sentence. And because sentences create patterns, the cumulative effect of your sentences has a larger overall effect on the work itself. Short sentences are more dramatic; long sentences are calmer by nature and tend to be more explanatory or descriptive. If your writing a tense scene and use long sentences [me here: or long paragraphs], you may be working against yourself.

I often liken writing to music. Composers use punctuation to speed up or slow down pace and musicians use types of “articulation” to enhance whatever mood they are going for — intense? dangerous? romantic? thoughtful?

Good writers use similar tools — punctuation, length of sentences and paragraphs (short and choppy or longer and measured?) to create an emotional response in their readers. The best writers understand this not only creates emotion, it provides variety on each page and over the whole book.

Pacing is not just aural, it’s visual. How your writing LOOKS on the page is important. Which brings us back to the paragraph. How many you use per page, and how long or short your paragraphs are should be conscious choices you make. Here is the same thought, expressed two different ways:

Fragments, the length of sentences, punctuation, and how often you paragraph can all work to give a particular pace. If you really think about, you’ll realize that you can use sentence and paragraph structure to create a feeling of speed or slowness, depending on what kind of emotional response you want to induce in your reader.

Okay, that gets my point across, right? But what if I structured the same thought this way:

Think of it! You can move a reader through a story fast. Their hearts will race!

Or you can slow them down and make them use their heads.

It’s all in how your sentences look on the page.

The first is measured, more academic in pace, meant to make you slow down and digest the thought. The second is lively and urgent, making you anticipate an important climax-point. Neither is correct. They are just two different styles of pacing, word choice, sentence length and paragraphing to different affect.

I think most of us here, being in the crime business, know we shouldn’t write a lot of long paragraphs. You can get away with some, especially in description. But these days, too many long paragraphs per page looks “old-fashioned” or worse, “textbook.” It worked for Dickens and even for a stylist like Delillo. Not so much for the rest of us today.

Are any of you out there art folks or designers? Then you understand the value of “white space” or “negative space.” Simply put, negative space is the area around and between a subject. It appears in all drawings, paintings and photographs. The “subject” below is enhanced by the negative space surroudning him. (Notice, too, the crop lines that make for an even more compelling negative/positive composition!)

Paragraphing provides white space. Don’t believe me? Go read Elmore Leonard.

Ray Bradbury said that each paragraph is a mini-scene and when you hit ENTER you are helping your reader enter a new scene, thought or action. I’ll leave you with one more example. It’s from one of my favorite opening pages from a novel.

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

That’s the opening to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I love the way the first line sits there all alone, like a roadside sign that you’re entering hell. Then he gives us this amazing loooong graph with gorgeous imagery and the nonchalance of the unnamed man. And then, a third paragraph — BAM! — he gives us our arsonist-star by name.

Bradbury could have made this all one graph. But no, he chose three. Your turn. Choose wisely when to hit enter.