By John Gilstrap

When I was younger, I thrived on horror stories. I read every word Stephen King wrote, and I’d be first in line for the slasher movies of the ’70s and ’80s. I lost my taste for them during my fire service years, and abandoned them entirely once I started a family. I don’t know if there’s a nexus in there, but that was the timing of it.

That’s also about the time when I realized that energy lives on past the lives of some, and that those energies are drawn to me. Or, maybe it’s the other way around.

Two stories (of many I could share):

CHRIS DORST | Gazette-Mail

Ten, maybe fifteen years ago, I signed on for a midnight tour of Moundsville State Penitentiary in West Virginia. It’s supposed to be one of the most haunted spots in America (aren’t they all?), and I thought it would be a hoot. I talked Jeffery Deaver into coming along. We climbed onto a bus around 6 pm and drove off into the night.

The tour was led by a self-proclaimed ghost hunter who channeled Van Helsing, complete with the floppy fedora and flowing great coat. When we arrived at the prison grounds, Van saw ghosts everywhere, just hangin’ around the yard. “There’s one! There’s one!” Jeff and I thought it was a hoot.

Then we entered the hospital wing of the abandoned fortress. If you’ve seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, you know what the place looks like. There’s a common room that was overseen by a nurse’s station, beyond which there are a couple of operatories and then another common room. This repeated five or six times.

Remember, the only lighting we had were the flashlights that we brought with us, so eerie doesn’t quite touch the atmosphere at zero-dark-early. We walked into the first one or two of the operatories, looked around, checked our watches and began talking about how we might work our way back to the bus.

The mood of the evening changed when we crossed the threshold of what I believe was the third operatory. I stopped about three steps in and could not go any farther. A dark energy surrounded me–that’s the best way I can put it, a nearly electrical feeling on my skin, but more than that, I felt so terribly sad. It was the kind of sadness that comes after the loss of a loved one. It was unbearable.

I turned and walked back out into the hallway, and the feeling vanished, as surely as if a switch had been flipped. Deaver reported feeling “something” but he night have been humoring me. Everyone else seemed to be fine. I went to Van Helsing and asked if that room was particularly energized? His response: “You notice I stay in the hallway, right?”

As the tour moved on, I told Jeff that I needed to go back. I needed to know if it was some kind of trick that Van was pulling. We parted from the group and walked back. This time, when I crossed the threshold, my knees nearly buckled. The feeling was beyond awful. It felt soul stealing.

That was the only notable incident on that tour, but later research showed that that room was used to perform lobotomies back in the ’50s or ’60s.

Now, fast-forward a few years. I was in Boston, staying at one of the fancy chain hotels to attend a board of directors for the trade association I worked for. (I’m not sandbagging on the name. I really don’t remember which one, and given the story to come, it’s best not to guess and be wrong.)

About 2:30 in the morning, I was sound asleep, alone in my room, sleeping on my left side, as I am wont to do, when someone grabbed my shoulder with both hands and placed his face about an inch from mine.

I shot out of bed, ready for war. I don’t think I’ve ever been so startled, before or since. Nobody was there, but I could still feel the imprint of his hand on my shoulder. I turned on the light, and the first thing I did was check my door. Not only was it closed, it was locked on the inside.

This was not a dream. It could not have been a dream. I saw him, for God’s sake. But several thorough searches revealed that I was still alone. The most vivid goddamn dream in the history of nightmares.

It takes a while for the body to process that much adrenaline, but ultimately, I fell back to sleep. Shortly after the sun came up, I rose, showered, tied myself into a business suit and headed down to the staff breakfast room. I was the last to arrive, but that wasn’t uncommon, given my relationship with mornings. As I sat down with my banquet eggs, I relayed the story of my nightmare, and conversation stopped.

My boss paled and asked, “What room are you in?”

“Twenty-one forty-four,” I answered. (I don’t remember the real room number.)

A gasp went around the table. By boss was staying in 2244, and one of our VPs was staying in 2344. All of us had the exact same “nightmare” within minutes of each other.

Creepy, eh? Okay, there’s a coda to the story. I was on the hook for a very important, very serious presentation to a filled ballroom at 8 am the next morning. After an endless string of meetings, I returned to my room at around 11 pm. Out loud, I said, “Okay, look. I know you have a job to do, and I respect that. I respect that I am in your space, but I really need to sleep tonight, so I’d appreciate it if you’d leave me alone.”

In general, I’m not a deep sleeper in a hotel, but that night, I slept like, well, the dead.

I haven’t studied this stuff, and I don’t pretend to understand it, but I’ve come to believe that something about what makes us human projects energy, and I think that some people are better tuned to it than others. I think I’ve posted here before that I have a very strong Spidey sense about others. My first impressions of people rarely prove themselves wrong. (Truthfully, I can’t remember a single time.)

When my son was 14 or so, he got separated from the group on a camping trip and became the focus of a National Park Service search party. (In case you’re wondering, parents are not informed of ongoing searches when they are in their early stages.) He and a buddy were lost in Washington National Forest all night. Everybody turned out fine, but he tells a great story of what it’s like being in the middle of nowhere on a moonless night as the batteries in your flashlight begin to die.

We learned about the search after he returned home a week or so later. Here’s the thing, though: On the night he was lost–at the hours he was lost–I couldn’t sleep. Instead, I got up and wrote about a young teenager lost in the woods.

Okay, now that I’ve revealed my crazy card, what say you, TKZ family? In this season of spooks and witchcraft, do you have any stories to share?

A Writer’s Greatest Super Power

By PJ Parrish

If you had to name one characteristic that all great writers have, what would you say?

Imagination? Yeah, can’t get very far down the road without it. Well, actually you can write a decent legal brief, but that won’t get you many fan letters.

Persistence? Well, if you’re going to quit after one rejection letter, bad review or paltry royalty check, you weren’t meant for this business in the first place.

Discipline? Sure, I’d agree you need this, mainly because I am not very good at this.  

Good vocabulary? A passion for reading? Clarity of thought?

Yeah, yeah, yeah…

I’ve always thought that fiction writers have a lot in common with painters. Back in college as an art major, I spent hours in life drawing classes staring at nude women and men, trying to make my hand capture in charcoal what my eyes were seeing. The exercise was meant to not just replicate reality but to strengthen that weird wiring in the brain that produces hand-eye connection. Most artists must go through this academic phrase.

Here’s an early nude drawing by an artist done in 1897:

Which lead him to create this nude in 1907:

And this one a few years later:

Which eventually led him to his apotheotic iconic style.

The point I am trying to make here is that yes, imagination, persistence, reading, discipline are all important. But the greatest power you might need as a writer is simple observation. Like Picasso, your ability to observe and study human life gives you the raw material from which you spin your stories. 

One of my favorite writers, David Sedaris, is known for turning his acute observational skills into hilarious essays about the human experience. (My favorite is “Me Talk Pretty One Day” about his sad efforts to learn French). He has some great tips on how writers can tune into their surroundings to enhance their fiction. Click here.

You need observation to create description, to establish mood, and make your setting come alive. This is especially important if you’re working in a genre like sci-fi or fantasy where you are literally building a world from scratch. But let’s go with simple description. Many writers, in my opinion, skimp on this, thinking a cursory brush stroke or two will do the trick. Take, for example, a sunset over a lake. You could write:

The water glittered like molten gold in the light of the setting sun.

Yeah…but meh. If you’re gonna use a metaphor or simile, it better be fresh as a…(you fill in the blank).

We used the power (or lack thereof) of observation for a scene in our book Island of Bones. In it, an ex-cop named Mel Landeta, who is slowly going blind, is sitting on the beach with Louis as the sun is setting.  

The breeze was kicking up. Louis closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath of the tangy salt air. He listened to the breaking waves.
“Tell me what it looks like,” Landeta said.
Louis opened his eyes. “What?”
“The sunset.”
“I’m not falling for that again. I know you can see it, some of it anyway.”
“All I can see is a big blur of color.”
“Well, that’s all it is.”
Landeta laughed as he shook his head. “Christ, you’re hopeless. Tell me what it looks like.”
Louis looked back at the sky and shrugged. “I told you, it’s colorful.”
“Try again,” Landeta said.
Louis took a deep breath. “Okay, it’s red at the bottom and kind of yellow at the top.”
Landeta shook his head. “You can do better than that.”
“It’s really red and really yellow. Shit, Mel, you tell me.”
Landeta lifted his face to the sky, his eyes closed. “The clouds are wispy, and it’s like someone tossed a bunch of yellow and pink feathers against a freshly painted red wall. And the sun is laying itself down on the water, giving in, like you would if you were going to sleep and knew you had nothing but good dreams ahead.”
Louis looked at Landeta, then back out at the sky.
“I can’t do better than that, man,” he said.

This is the ending of the book, which circles back to a minor chord theme about Mel trying to teach Louis to slow down and observe (ie enjoy) life. Louis, as a cop, is very observant in his work, picking up on human tics, crime scene idiosyncrasies, and the tiniest bread crumb of clues. But there isn’t a creative bone in his body. You, as a fiction writer, need to be what Mel Landeta is — both cop and poet.

You also need observation powers to write great dialogue. As we’ve said here many times, dialogue is not real conversation. Real conservation is banal and bloated. Good dialogue is sleight of ear, a trick really, wherein you the writer listen to real folks talking and then recast it into stylized “conversations” between characters.  You must observe real speech patterns, idiosyncrasies, idioms, dialect, and accents to make each character you create feel real and singular.  

A few good examples that I could find:

From Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

“Good morning,” began the woman.

“I beg to differ.”

“My name is Gwendolin Bendincks.”

“Don’t blame me.”

And an example from one of my favorite books, Cormac McCarthy’s, The Road.

Do you know where we are Papa?

Sort of.

How sort of.

Well. I think we’re about two hundred miles from the coast. As the crow flies.

As the crow flies?

Yes. I means going in a straight line.

Are we going to get there soon?

Not real soon. Pretty soon. We’re not going as the crow flies.

Because crows don’t have to follow roads?


They can go wherever they want.


Do you think there might be crows somewhere.

I dont know.

But what do you think?

I think it’s unlikely.

I like this because it feels so authentic, this conversation between father and son and also because its bare-branch construction mimics the apocalyptic wasteland. 

When you observe, be it humans or nature, always be on the lookout for what we here at TKZ call “the telling detail.” Don’t lard on adjectives, metaphors and such. (Go back and read James’s recent take on this in his post Don’t Gild Your Lilies.

I remember listening to Mike Connelly talk about how he looks for telling details in creating his characters. He talked about how he wanted to convey that an outwardly taciturn detective (I forget which book) was actually an emotional mess inside. How did this manifest in description? He has another character observe that the ends of the detective’s glasses were chewed to nubs. 

Here’s a great quote from Raymond Chandler about the power of the telling detail on readers:

“The things they remembered, that haunted them, was not, for example, that a man got killed, but that in the moment of death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death.”

A couple other hints about using your powers of observation before I go.

Use All Your Senses.  Beginner writers tend to rely too much on sight alone. Smell, science tells us, is far more evocative. Here’s the opening of Joanne Harris’s Chocolat:

We came on the wind of the carnival. A warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausage and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside, with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters.

Never Generalize. Be specific: I find this is a common weakness in our First Page Critiques, that the writers opt for generalizations like “handsome” or “hot weather” when a well-observed specific would be more powerful. Here’s Gabriel García Márquez describing his village is One Hundred Years of Solitude:

Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs.

Or Hemingway setting his scene in A Farewell To Arms.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

And this this sharply observed description from Jack London in White Fang inspired some of my own description of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula:

Dark spruce forest frowned on either side of the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean toward each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness — a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the Sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild.

To close, I’ll go back to Picasso. Here is one of his earliest drawings, from his childhood.

As a student, he filled the margins of his notebooks with pencil drawings of the birds, animals and people he had seen. One of these notebooks is in a museum in Barcelona, along with a note his first grade teacher sent home to his mama:

“Pablo should stop drawing in class and pay attention to his lessons”

Luckily, his mama didn’t listen. And Picasso never stopped paying attention to the details, to what was really important. 

Writing Tight

Those who’ve grown familiar with these posts over the past few months realize that I have severe diarrhea of the keyboard, but that’s only here on the Kill Zone blog where I let my mind free. My Red River and Sonny Hawke novels come in somewhere around 90-100,000 words. They aren’t Tom Clancy-size doorstops.

I also write short bursts of weekly self-syndicated mostly humorous outdoor columns (though there are plenty of serious columns) that began back in 1988, and so through the decades…

…good lord. I’ve written those for decades, and I’m from the generation who said, “Never trust anyone over twenty-one years old.”

Anyway, in those columns for The Paris News, The Rockport Pilot, and Country World (a rural newspaper distributed across the entire Lone Star State), I have to tell an entire story in less than a thousand words. They usually come in at around 850-950 words and most of them are in the right order.

Now there’s a lot of info packed in there containing the traditional three parts of a story, beginning, middle, and end. It can also translate into the three acts of a novel, something I hadn’t consciously considered until I’d written three of my books.

Here’s where we pause to make fun of myself. Gilstrap and I were drinking scotch outside at a conference somewhere after the release of my third novel, and talking about books and writing. We were alone (thank the Lord), when I mentioned that I’d recently noticed an interesting structural component in my work.

“They seem to be divided into thirds, somehow.” I took a sip of Glenlivet. “It just happens, and I didn’t notice it until I was proofing this last one. Then I went back and looked at the other manuscripts I’d sent in. It’s like my high school English teacher taught us. There’s a beginning that’s about a third of the book, then the second part seems to arc up, and in the third part, all the action races downhill to the end.”

He took a delicate sip of Lagavulin and cut his eyes at me giving me that country bless your heart look. “Rev.”


“Those are the three acts in a novel.”

“Oh, yeah. Uh, let me pour you another drink.” A torrent of long-forgotten memories rushed through the haze of single malt peat. “Good Lord! Now I remember those lessons. I’d completely forgotten!”

But I hadn’t. They were still chugging away in my subconscious and I’d been applying those lessons for years as I developed my newspaper columns and magazine articles without knowing it.

If I’m writing those humor columns, the three acts are the setup, the story arc, and the punchline (and that sometimes translates to the punch-paragraph). To accomplish all this with enough detail to put the reader in place and time, I learned to write tight.

That’s hard for novelists, and so in a way, it worked in reverse for me. Two thousand columns taught me concise structure, and that’s the way my mind works, no matter what I write. So when I was hammering out my first novel, I decided to abandon the write tight rule and put it behind me, so I could include everything I wanted.

There were broad, sweeping descriptions of the world I’d created. In my mind, I wanted to preserve the way my Old Folks spoke, so I added a lot of their phraseology and words. In addition, I went into great detail about how to render lard in large cast iron pots, or how my grandmother canned vegetables and fruits, and how the house smelled and felt through the seasons.

I ended up with a tome that required severe editing. Once I was finished, you couldn’t tell anything had been deleted and the manuscript flowed like a spring-fed creek.

In the years since, I construct novels with an eye toward an 80,000-85,000 word length in my first draft. That gets the structural foundation in place. Then I go back and add more conversation in places, tightly controlled descriptions, and elements left out in the first frenzy of construction.

But back to compact construction. While pounding away at the keys this morning to meet my weekly newspaper deadline, I registered a song playing in the background and stopped to listen. It’s a fine example of writing tight, a song that’s the perfect structural foundation for a novel. A story written tight.

I use this song and those lyrics when teaching classes how to construct a story (and I even tell those in attendance it’s the textbook outline, if outlining is easiest for them).

The structural foundation for this popular song (in my part of the world) could become a short story, or a screenplay, is titled, The Lights of Loving County, by Charlie Robison. (I really hope someone approaches him to buy the rights for a movie). It’s a song with three full acts circling back to mesh with the beginning with an astonishing connection. The song was written by Charlie Robison, too (I’m trying to give as much credit as possible so as not to get sued here). Read this as a story, and not as a grand poem set to music, and I’ll be waiting for you on the other side.

Well, I loved a girl,
She lived out in Pecos, and pretty as she could be.
And I worked the rigs on out in Odessa
To give her whatever she needs.

But that girl, she run with an oil company bum
‘cause a diamond was not on her hand.
And he left her soon ‘neath the big loving moon
To go out and X-ray the land.


Now I sit in my car at the New Rainbow Bar downtown.
And the frost on the windshield shines toward the sky
Like a thousand tiny diamonds in the lights of Loving County.

Well, l walked in that bar and I drank myself crazy
Thinking about her and that man.
When in walked a woman, looking richer than sin
with ten years-worth of work on her hand.

Well, I followed her home and when she was alone,
I put my gun to her head.
And I don’t recall what happened next at all,
But now that rich woman, she’s dead.


Now I drive down the highway
Ten miles from my sweet baby’s arms.
And the moon is so bright it don’t look like night,
And the diamond how it sparkles in the lights of Loving County.


Well, she opened that door and I knelt on the floor,
And I put that ring in her hand.
Then she said, “I do: and she’d leave with me soon
To the rigs out in South Alabam’.

Now I told her to hide that ring there inside,
And wait ’til the timing was good.
And I drove back home and I was alone
‘cause I thought that she understood


The next night an old friend just called me to wish us both well.
He said, he’d seen her downtown, sashaying around,
And her diamond, how it sparkled in the lights of Loving County.

Well that sheriff, he found me out wandering
All around El Paso the very next day.
You see, I’d lost my mind on that broken white line
‘fore I even reached Balmorhea.


Well, now she’s in Fort Worth and she’s just given birth
To the son of that oil company man.
And they buried that poor old sheriff’s dead wife
With the ring that I stole on her hand.

And sometimes they let me look up at that East Texas sky.
And the rain on the pines, oh Lord, how it shines
Like my darling’s little diamond in the lights of Loving County.


God, I wish I’d written that. There it is, an entire novel in one neat little package. An outline, if you will, just waiting to be fleshed out. This is a prime example of writing tight with just enough detail to bring the story to life, and yet not too much fat.


In there, we see the harsh West Texas landscape, and a hardscrabble life in the oil business. Charlie shows us the two main characters who set this story into motion, a man who loves a woman deeply and despises another suitor, and a woman who sees worth in the baubles men provide to make her feel better out there in the desert.


Then the action begins. The jealous protagonist needs two things on a cold winter night. Booze and money. One to sooth his emotions, and the other to buy the girl he’s crazy about. It always comes down to money, doesn’t it? In an alcoholic blackout, he commits murder. He has what he wants, but at the same time is struggling with right and wrong, soon to be overcome guilt and mental breakdown after she starts flashing that diamond around town.


Murder, intrigue, and a brilliant twist that leads to his capture and final incarceration in Huntsville State Prison where he sometimes can see rain caught on the pines that surround the penitentiary. It’s the dichotomy between the dry west and lush eastern part of our state, still another level in this multifaceted story.


I’ve provided a link below so that you can hear the original version of the song. It needs nothing else, except to be fleshed out with a minimum of instrumentation, another brilliant version of writing tight. As my young daughters heard until they gagged, “Less is more.”


Hope this quick little lesson has some impact on your writing.







The Proper Use of Improper Words

By Elaine Viets

CAUTION: Pearl-clutching zone. This blog contains R-rated language. If you’re offended by off-color words, please don’t continue.

Hah. I knew you’d keep reading this.
When I was a kid, my mother would wash my mouth out with soap if I used bad language. I can tell you from personal experience, Dial soap does not taste good.
Now that I’m grown up, those same forbidden words are in the dictionary. Yes, sometimes I mourn the good old days, when no one dared to use these words in public. But we can’t go back.
So why am I writing about offensive words?
Because if we want to write realistic stories, that’s how some people talk.
When I lived in a rough neighborhood in Washington DC, I was approached by would-be purse thief. He didn’t say, “Madame, hand over your reticule, please.” He said, “Give me your money, bitch.” (He didn’t get it, but that’s another story.)
In our novels, offensive language can be in indication of character (or lack of), social status, and age. Younger people are more likely to use these words than older ones.
Here are some cuss words from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

Badass. One word, no hyphen.
This is my favorite off-color word. Often used for men, lately it’s been describing strong women (see kickass). Gal Godot in Wonder Woman, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, and Michelle Yeoh, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are all examples. Dania Gurira, the all-women army leader in Black Panther, is the epitome of badass.

Webster says badass can be an adjective and both usages are “chiefly US, informal and sometimes offensive.”
Badass means “ready to cause or get into trouble.” Or, “of formidable strength or skill” as in “a badass guitar player.”

As a noun, badass is “a person who is badass.”

Badassery. Noun, one word.
It means “the state or condition of being a badass.”
This example in the Village Voice would have had Mom buying a case of Dial.
“The Seattle quartet, hailed as godfathers of emo back when that word made you think of something other than ‘eyeliner,’ indulged the distorted guitar badassery of their grunge-era brethren …”

Bitch. Noun.
We all know that bitch is a female dog. That’s excuse I used on Mom when she was brandishing that soap bar. She wasn’t fooled.
Like Webster, Mom knew that word was “informal and often offensive” and meant, “a malicious, spiteful, or overbearing woman.” It was also “a generalized term of abuse and disparagement for a woman.” And finally, “something that is extremely difficult, objectionable, or unpleasant.”
Or, as the novelist Harold Robbins wrote: “July and August were always a bitch in the subway.”
Bitch also means “complaint,” and is both a transitive and intransitive verb.
“They bitched up their lives.”

SOB. Noun, capped with no periods.
Webster downgrades this cuss word to “slang, sometimes offensive” and gives this example: “. . .. A guy who brought two dozen roses to a first coffee date and told you he felt like the luckiest SOB on the planet in the first five minutes.”

Asshat. Here’s a word that seems to be gaining in popularity in novels.
Webster says it’s a noun and “vulgar slang. A stupid, annoying, or detestable person.” See, asshole.
The first known use of this was in 1999. Then Webster has this odd “History and Etymology for asshat.”
“The seemingly nonsensical linking of ass and hat has a curious prehistory. Examples of the linkage can be found in dialogue lines from late-twentieth-century films: ‘Anyone found bipedal in five wears his ass for a hat!’ (addressed to the employees of a bank as the robbers leave, in Raising Arizona, 1987, script by Ethan and Joel Coen). . . .”
Webster wonders: “If we have been calling people assheads for almost 500 years now, why did it take so long for ass and hat to get together in similarly pejorative fashion? One reason may be that while ass lends itself well to the beginning of an opprobrious compound, hat leaves something to be desired in terms of mordant wit.”
Amen. Few of these words can be considered witty, and most are a blight on the language.
Now we get to the cuss words I really dislike.

Asshole. A noun, “usually vulgar.”
The first meaning is “anus,” but Webster also says it can mean “a stupid, annoying, or detestable person,” and “the least attractive or desirable part or area —used in phrases like asshole of the world.” This is an ancient word, first used in the 14th century.
But not by Mom.

We can skip “shit” – we know too about that word and its variations. I hate that word, though I’ve used it occasionally. Mostly in traffic.

Let’s go to a fairly harmless phrase:
WTF. Harmless, that is, until you see what the abbreviation stands for.
Now if Mom was around with her bar of soap, I’d try to weasel out by quoting the Acronym Finder.
“Hey, Mom, WTF stands for Well and Truly Freaked, or What’s This Foolishness? Where’s the Fudge?, or heh, heh, Welcome to Florida. In fact there are 105 definitions of WTF, so put down that soap, Mom, and let’s talk.’”
Webster authoritatively says the phrase is all caps and “informal.”
“WTF means ‘What the f– ’” Webster uses the actual f-word and says WTF is “used especially to express or describe outraged surprise, recklessness, confusion, or bemusement.”
Mom would not be bemused. Or amused.

LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE, my new Angela Richman mystery, is out. Publishers Weekly says, “Colorful characters match the crafty plot twists. Viets consistently entertains.” Read the review and order your copy here: https://www.publishersweekly.com/9780727850287

The Excruciating Death of Mister Red Pepper Paste Man

Coroners are different folk. A coroner requires a blend of things. Investigative skill, comprehensive training, personality quirk, life experience, legal and forensic knowledge, compassion, empathy, curiosity, gray or white hair, strong stomach, and a good sense of black humor. I guess I was a good fit as a coroner.

I was involved in around 2,500 human death investigations during my run as a coroner. That’s an approximation because I never kept track. I could go back through my notebooks and count but, at my stage, I really don’t care about stats.

I can’t possibly remember them all. Nor can I remember names. What I remember are unique cases which we, in the Coroner Service, appropriately nicknamed according to their death circumstances.

For instance, I distinctly recall Betty Cutter, not Betty Crocker. She cut her own throat with her kitchen’s electric carving knife and her name was Elizabeth. Same with The Flying Dutchman— a guy named Hoogenstratten (sp?) who, with an alcohol level three times the legal driving limit, crashed his sizzled ultralight after buzzing into high-voltage power lines. Then there was Grizzly Adam whose name was Adam and was mauled to death by a grizzly bear.

Who could forget Dallas? He doused himself with gasoline, lit himself on fire, and blazingly ran around in a snowy backyard until he extinguished for good. To establish time of death, I canvassed a neighbor. She watched it all from her kitchen window and timed her snackage interruption as being the commercial break three-quarters through watching the TV show Dallas.

And I’ll never forget another case. I was a junior, understudying with a coroner who I describe as like travelling with Yoda. Barbara McCormick was, without a doubt, the highest IQ person I ever encountered. And it was Barb who monickered the death victim Mister Red Pepper Paste Man. Let me tell you his story that I once posted in my blog at DyingWords.net.


“Sounded like someone was skinning a live cat,” the next-door lady told us. She sniffed, wiping her eyes. “Then loud crashing and banging, then… everything went quiet. I waited a while, didn’t hear nothing more, so I went and checked and found him dead on the floor.”

I was in my first year of coroner service and shadowing my mentor, senior coroner Barbara McCormick. We were in the kitchen of a tiny suite at the low rent side of town, standing over this skinny, old guy who was in a semi-fetal position with one arm wrapped around his abdomen and his other hand clutching his throat. I’ll never forget his wide-open eyes or the gritting grimace of teeth—the expression of excruciating pain etched in a cold, deathly stare.

“Heart attack or brain aneurysm, Barb?” I asked, ready to flip a coin. I was new to the coroner service, but no stranger to dead bodies after a career as a homicide cop. There was zero sign of foul play at this scene, and my experience told me people usually drop dead from one of these two natural events.

Barb was bent over, starting the head-to-toe examination that coroners do before removing a body for a thorough autopsy back at the morgue. “Wouldn’t bet on either.” Barb was trying to pry his jaw for a look down the throat. “Check his color. Blue-gray. Looks like he’s asphyxiated. I’m thinking he might have choked on something but, for the life of me, I don’t know how he could let out a curdling cat-scream if something was stuck in his yap.”

While Barb was messing with his head, I snooped around. It was typical digs for a single pensioner—a bachelor suite crammed with junk. Empty booze bottles and overflowing ashtrays testified to a lifestyle that suggested he should be dead of something by now. I checked for meds, which was routine. The pathologist would want to know what was likely in his system and the toxicology lab would want it for sure.

I found the usual pill vials indicating treatment for coronary and respiratory ailments that heavy drinkers and smokers all have. The place was relatively clean, although cluttered, and didn’t reek of garbage and bodily waste like most of these places do. I saw a part-eaten sandwich on the table and a freshly cracked beer—seemed like the old boy was doing lunch when violently seized by the death monster and taken down hard to the mat.

Barb stood up. She was puzzled. “I have no idea. Should be an interesting postmortem.” We finished photographs, bagged the man, then stretchered him out to the transport van and drove him off to the morgue.

We’d recorded his personal details, which is part of a death investigation, but his real name never stayed with me. Most are like that. In the death business it’s not a good idea to get too close to your clients, but some you never forget because of how they checked out.

It’s normal—in black humor behind the scenes—for coroners to name their files by earned handles. I’ll always remember Capn’ Crab Bait, Voltage Vern, Methlab Mikey, Arachnoid Ann, Lawn Tractor Guy, Tarzan of the Caterpillars, Freight Train Ference, The Krosswalk Kidd, The Drill Sergeant, Pole Dancer, Cats-Sup, and… as long as I live… I’ll never forget Betty – the Electric Carving Knife Lady.

And, it came to pass, I’ll also never forget the dead little man we’d just rolled into the cooler.

Next morning my favorite pathologist, Dr. Elvira Esikanian, was on the roster to autopsy our guy from the kitchen floor. I loved dealing with Elvira. She’s Bosnian with a wicked sense of dry humor and an equally wicked curriculum vitae, including exhuming mass graves for the UN and serving in some of the busiest morgues around the world where she’d often do a dozen different cuttings per day.

Although Elvira was exceptionally thorough, she was a go-to-the-throat prosector. She’d assess the circumstances, then head straight to the most likely cause.

“I’m suspecting an acute respiratory event,” Elvira stated. “Note the petechiae in the eyes.” She pointed to pricks of blood in his whites. “We normally see petechiae in cases of sudden and severe loss of oxygen, such as in strangulation, although on this man I see no sign of exterior trauma.”

We Y-incisioned the thorax/abdominal cavities and began removing organs.

“His lungs are clear, with the exception of tobacco effects.” Elvira had cross-sectioned them. “And his airway is unobstructed. This man did not choke, nor was he suffocated by fluid.” She examined the heart, which showed expected signs of advanced coronary artery disease. “And he did not suffer a heart attack.” Elvira placed the gastro-intestinal tract in a plastic tub and set it aside on her bench.

She proceeded straight to a cranial exam, inspecting for the tell-tale bleed of a cerebral hemorrhage. “Nothing obvious here.” Elvira put the brain in a stainless bowl. “You indicated this man was eating lunch when he expired.” She looked at me. I nodded. She reached for her plastic tub. “I’m going to examine the stomach.”

For most pathologists and coroners, digging in the digestive tract is the most unpleasant part of the job. It was no different with this man. Elvira incised the stomach and poured its contents into a clear, glass tray. She flipped on her magnifiers and bent a gooseneck light overtop. Immediately, she let out a wolf-whistle. “Look at this!”

To me, it was a messy slime-goo of chewed bread mixed with some rude and red, pasty substance.

To Elvira, it was the smoking gun.

I watched Elvira excise a culture, fix it in a slide, and examine it under her microscope.

“Have a look.” She directed me to the eyepieces.

What I saw was a squiggling biological mass of sub-terrain aliens—looking out-of-this-world like agitated, animated, turquoise tampons breathlessly mingling in a magnified mess of greenish-gray snot.

I swear they had heads, horns, and hoofs.

“Clostridium  Botulinum,” Elvira announced. “Botulism. I’m sure this man died from the deadliest food poison known.”

Now, I’d heard of botulism. Everyone has. That’s why my mum would sniff the tin cans when she opened them and why she’d boiled preserves for four hours. But this was the first time I’d seen a real case of botulism.

“We won’t know the strain or the severity level until we get toxicology results but I can tell you, given how quickly this poor fellow expired, it must be an extremely toxic ratio.”

Elvira went on. “What happens is the neurotoxin produced by the botulinum bacteria acts as a blocking agent preventing neurotransmitters from issuing instructions to the muscles. Once this poison hit his system, every nerve in his body would have felt on fire and he’d quickly fall into total paralysis. That would soon stop his lungs and he’d fall into a state of anoxia, or lack of oxygenated blood to the brain. He’d be conscious throughout and would feel everything… but would be unable to react.”

She glanced at the cut-open cadaver on her examining table. “What a positively excruciating way to die.”

Barb McCormick already had her digital camera out and was scrolling through shots from the scene. “This might be it.” Barb enlarged a photo showing the kitchen. Evident was a jar with its top off, containing a reddish substance.

Realizing the lethality of the situation and the danger to others, Barb and I immediately went back to the apartment. There, on the counter, was a jar of red pepper paste with a label indicating it originated in China and was far past its expiry date. A tag showed it’d been purchased at the Dollar Store.

Cautiously, we peered inside.

And—I’m here to tell you—that red, peppery, pasty scum was actually moving.

It took over a month for the toxicology results to come back. They proved positive for Botulinum toxin—Type E—and the dosage was staggering.

Toxicology measures the presumed lethal dose of a substance in digital units of LD50/ (mg/kg) which translates to the Lethal Dose (LD) required to kill half of the tested laboratory animals in a controlled volume and time.

The LD for Botulinum toxin is 0.00001. Our red pepper paste man’s reading was over 0.02000—two thousand times the amount needed to kill a human being.


It’s been a few years since the red pepper paste case and I thought I’d review the pathology around Botulinum toxin. Here’s a quote from a paper by the World Health Organization on the medical process of how botulism works on the human body:

To understand the role of Botulinum toxin, it is necessary first to understand how the brain initiates a muscle contraction as it is in this process that Botulinum toxin intervenes.

Muscles are connected to the brain by the nervous system which is a complex network of neurons – these are long cells that can pass information using either electrical or chemical signals. Chemical signals pass between neurons and muscles through synapses, which are specialized connections linking cells. The chemicals that are used to pass these messages are called neurotransmitters.

In the case of a muscle contraction, the chemical signal is passed using a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. This sits in the neuron in a vesicle, a small bubble surrounded by a membrane, until it is required. When the neuron receives a message from the nervous system to initiate a muscle contraction, the acetylcholine is released from the vesicle and passes through the synapse into the muscle fiber.

To achieve this, the vesicles need to be transported to, and fuse with, the neuron membrane that adjoins the synapse between the nerve and the muscle. This process is controlled by a group of proteins called the SNARE complex.

The three main proteins involved are Syntaxin (which connects to the nerve membrane), Synaptobrevin (which connects to the vesicle) and SNAP-25 (which helps the other SNARE proteins link up). These proteins join together to cause the vesicle to move to the nerve membrane and fuse with it. The acetylcholine can then be released across the synapse and pass into the muscle. This then triggers a chain of events that causes the muscle contraction.

Botulinum toxin prevents the release of acetylcholine through the synapse.

Botulinum toxin is produced by a bacterium called Clostridium Botulinum. This bacterium is associated with causing botulism, a rare but deadly form of food poisoning.

Botulinum toxin is exceptionally toxic but, when purified and used in tiny, medically controlled doses, it can be used effectively to relax excessive muscle contraction and is now commonly used in cosmetic surgery.


Hmmm… BOtulinum TOXin… BoTox.

The same gruesome stuff in the red pepper paste that painfully killed our old man is commonly stuck into people’s faces to make them look younger and pretty.

I’m sure, for the most part, BoTox injections are perfectly safe. But… if you’re thinking of cosmetically shedding some years, remember the Excruciating Death of Mister Red Pepper Paste Man.


What about you Kill Zoners? Would you take Botox injections? And does this post make you wanna check expiration dates in your fridge and in your cupboard? BTW, feel free to use this toxin to kill off your characters.


Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and coroner. Now he’s reinvented himself as a crime writer and deadly blogger. Probably an upcoming podcaster, too. 😉

Garry has a popular website at Dyingwords.net and a Twitter handle—@GarryRodgers1  Followers say Garry Rodgers is cool so be like Garry.

Travel and Writing

Travel and Writing
Terry Odell

Writing While TravelingAs I write this, I’m preparing for a photo safari, led by my son. (And, no, I don’t get a discount.)

As you read this, I should be on a yacht on the Adriatic Sea, traveling from Split to Dubrovnik. If things go as planned, and I did the calendar calculations right, today I’m en route from Korcula to Mljet, where the published itinerary says:

In the morning head further south to the Island of Mljet. Join the Cruise Manager for a stroll to the famous salt lakes in the Mljet National Park. Lunch on board and departure for a small village called Slano on the mainland, a peaceful fishermen’s village and the starting point to Ston, another once fortified small village famous for its oysters situated on Pelješac peninsula. Pelješac peninsula is known as one of the best wine-producing regions in Croatia. After exploring the town, we leave to a small nearby village to enjoy the authentic local oyster tasting. Tonight, enjoy Captain’s dinner and overnight in Slano.

Writing While TravelingA while back, I talked about dealing with far away settings in your writing. What am I going to be doing on this trip as far as writing is concerned? (And being able to write off travel expenses is a great motivation for incorporating the setting into a book.) When we toured the British Isles, I thought I’d write a short, sappy romance and be done with it, but I’m not wired that way. There had to be some sort of mystery. I figure that’s what’s going to come out of this trip, too.

I also have a manuscript due next month, so I’ll be spending some time on that, too. How much is unknown, as we’ll have a busy schedule, but my “spare” time will be divided between researching a new book and working on the one I have to finish.

First, the “Can’t/Won’t do” stuff.

  • Use Croatians as protagonists. That would require far more research then I have time for.
  • Have my protagonists solving crimes. They have no jurisdiction in another country.
  • Opportunities for dead bodies might present themselves (like finding a body in a tun in a whisky distillery in Scotland), but realistically, American citizens can’t investigate crimes in other countries, and if they’re on a tour, they’ll be somewhere else the next day.

The “Can do” stuff.

  • Do informal investigating as long as it doesn’t interfere with the local law enforcement.
  • Offer insights and observations to the officials in charge.

What will I be doing?

  • Taking pictures, of course, both what my first photography instructor called “record shots” and the more creative ones that our group will be taking.
  • Noting the food (a given for me)
  • People watching to come up with and flesh out characters.
  • Talking to others on the tour, and the boat crew.
  • Taking note of the climate.
  • Taking note of anything “Croatian” that will add depth to secondary characters.

What I don’t have is a plot, or much of a plan. I want to let the experience drive the story, not me trying to force a preconceived idea into what I find there.

I do know that I’d like it to continue what I began with Heather’s Chase: Not a sequel, but another stand alone novel marketed as “An International Mystery Romance” which leaves the door open for more. That means I’ll need a hero and heroine. They’ll probably meet on the tour, simply because that’s the genre expectation. They’ll have conflicts, but will be drawn together by the mystery in some way. Maybe working against each other, but eventually, they will have to have that promise of a happily ever after.

As I write this, I have no idea what kind of connectivity we’ll have on this trip. I doubt I’ll be around to respond to comments, but I know everyone here at TKZ will carry on the conversation.

What travels/locations have inspired your writing? What advice do you have to share?

Trusting Uncertainty by Terry OdellAvailable Now Trusting Uncertainty, Book 10 in the Blackthorne, Inc. series.
You can’t go back and fix the past. Moving on means moving forward.

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

What is Your POV Motive?

Photo credit: JohnPotter Pixabay

By Debbie Burke


Why does a writer choose to tell a story from a particular point of view?

Recently, Chuck, a regular TKZ reader, emailed me with questions about omniscient point of view. He wanted to write the first chapter of his revenge-theme murder mystery from the omniscient POV.

Right away, I knew I wasn’t qualified to advise him. I’ve never written anything  omniscient. The books I read rarely use it because my personal taste has always favored close, intimate POVs.

So I dove down the research rabbit hole to learn more about this mysterious POV.

Masterclass.com offers this definition:

An omniscient narrator is all-seeing and all-knowing…The narrator may occasionally access the consciousness of a few or many different characters.

Some writers use this perspective to create a more “godlike” or deliberately “authorial” persona that allows them to comment on the action with the benefit of distance.

Before TV, films, internet, and streaming, most people didn’t venture far from the places they were born. Travel was the domain of the wealthy.

Charles Dickens – Wikimedia

Therefore, books were ships that carried readers to distant shores they would never personally set foot on; to exotic worlds constructed from the author’s descriptions; to smells, sights, sounds, textures, and tastes readers could only imagine.

World building was crucial. 

Leo Tolstoy – CC BY-SA 3.0





Authors like Dickens, Tolstoy, and Tolkien spent many pages explaining the physical, social, religious, economic, historic, and psychological elements of the story world.

J.R.R. Tolkien – public domain




But as communication increased and the world became smaller, authors no longer had to paint such detailed pictures.

Reader interest shifted to characters who were fascinating or with whom readers could identify. They wanted go deeper into the characters’ hearts and minds to vicariously experience their fears, elation, rage, joy, doubt, guilt, pride, disappointment, lust, etc.

In today’s book market, close third and first person POVs are the most prevalent, although epic fantasy with its detailed world building still uses omniscient POV.

According to a 2016 New York Times article by Elliott Holt:

The effects of omniscience are authority and scope; novels with such narrators seem especially confident. The characters may be uncertain, but we sense the controlling force above them. Omniscience reinforces that we are reading fiction.

Some readers like that quality while others see it as authorial intrusion.

Holt goes on to say:

We know we’re being watched, by traffic and security cameras, by our employers, by the N.S.A., by random people taking pictures with their phones. We’re aware of the threat of hackers and cybercrime…Technological transcendence is “spooky”: Perhaps omniscience taps into this collective fear about loss of privacy.

Hmm. That explains why I personally avoid omniscient POV.

The most comprehensive article I found about omniscient POV is by John Matthew Fox of Book Fox at this link.

John provides clear, understandable explanations. For instance, in discussing show vs. tell, he says:

Third person omniscient is often more telling than showing, because the narrator is an objective observer. It’s like you’re telling someone about a movie you just saw.

He defines two types of third-person omniscient POV:

Objective: The narrator knows all, but they’re an observer. They can’t get into the characters’ heads, but are telling the story from somewhere outside.

Subjective: The narrator is an observer with opinions. We get a sense of what the narrator thinks about every character, in a judgy kind of way.

He says one advantage is the narrator “can dispense information that no character knows.” But he cautions: “many writers slide over into head hopping.”

He goes on to elaborate:

Where this gets confusing, especially for new writers, is in third person omniscient. Some newer writers think that head hopping and third person omniscient are the same thing, or at least close. This is not true. Third person omniscient tells a story from one perspective: the narrator’s. The narrator shouldn’t tell us the thoughts and feelings of all the characters, or any of the characters.

The narrator shows us how the characters feel through action and dialogue, not by hopping into the character’s heads to reveal what they’re thinking. The story is told from the narrator’s perspective, like the narrator is a character.

Here is John’s most compelling argument against using omniscient POV:

Literary agents and publishers are so reluctant to consider third person omniscient, and they’re not going to do it for a new writer. If you really want to try third person omniscient, do it for a very limited time, like the first chapter, to describe the setting. Sort of like a wide shot in a movie, writing the first chapter in third person omniscient can work.


As writers, we like to experiment with new ways to tell stories. Some experiments work, others fall flat, and a few explode in our faces.

After researching, my suggestions to Chuck are:

Examine your motive for using omniscient. Why is it the absolute best way to introduce your story? If it’s merely a gimmick or experiment, rethink the choice. 

Run the first chapter by critiquers and beta readers. They’ll help you judge if it works or not.  

Before submitting to agents or editors, understand that many are predisposed to dislike it.

If you use omniscient POV, be darn sure it’s done correctly and effectively.


TKZers: Please share books you’ve read that use omniscient POV. Which work and which don’t?

Why do you like or dislike omniscient POV?



In Debbie Burke’s thriller Eyes in the Sky, a drone gives an omniscient–and sinister–point of view. Please check it out at these links: 


Other online booksellers

First Page Critique: Innocent to a Fault

Happy Monday! Today’s first page critique is for a novel entitled ‘Innocent to a Fault’ and, although we don’t have a genre specified, I’m assuming it is going to be a mystery or a thriller. The fact that this isn’t clear is indicative of some the key issues facing this page – which you can see discussed in the comments that follow. I’m looking forward to getting input and support from our TKZ community to help guide our brave submitter on how to address the issues raised and turn this into a compelling first page. Here we go!
Thirty-three years ago, on a sunny October afternoon, driving a classic GTO that he’d just stolen from his neighbor’s carport, a teenager murdered our parents. Celia was 18, Katie was 16, and I was 12 when the Springville police notified us about the horrible accident. Because the kid was about my age, he was given a rap to the knuckles as punishment. At that devastating time, I didn’t know who I hated more—the delinquent for destroying so many lives, or the legal system for saying, “Boys will be boys.”
Nana said the hate I felt harmed me more than anyone, so I tried keeping it in check. But I failed badly, mainly because I needed to feel something and since I couldn’t love my parents any longer, hate filled the void.
During those early days of loss, feeling more anger than a child ever should, I came to two conclusions. One, that sometimes hating a person feels good, no matter how self-destructive.  And two, people who hurt others should face punishment, with no excuses allowed. Or more simply, if they couldn’t do the time, they should not have done the crime.
I know some will disagree, but I believe those who commit crimes are selfish to the core. They figure what they want is more important than what’s right. If selfish behavior could be obliterated, murders, thefts, rapes, all crimes would go down significantly.
My sister Celia is of a different mind. She believes sometimes good people do bad things, and each situation should have room for wiggle, which was why her daughter turned out the way she had. Reni had been wiggling out of trouble since puberty, with Celia always nearby, excuse in hand.
A few weeks ago Reni got involved in trouble that even Celia couldn’t justify. The scheme was criminal, and it all hinged on me. I learned about the plot during an unexpected visit from my niece.
With little preamble, Reni presented me with two choices: commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed. It was then that I understood Celia’s wiggle room philosophy that sometimes a good person has only bad options.
I thought about those bad options—while being more scared than I’ve ever been in my life—and made my decision.
I don’t know if I would make the same choice today.
(end of Chapter 1)
Overall Comments
The most significant concern I have with this submission is that it reads like a synopsis not the first page to a novel. Not only have we been given the entire backstory to the narrator’s current situation but we’re also being told the entire set up for the novel without having any action, dialogue, character development, or inciting incident. All we really have is exposition and explanation that robs the first page of all dramatic tension and makes it feel like the summary of a plot rather than the start of a work of fiction. That being said, we do get some sense of the conflict that (I assume) forms the backbone of the story in the choice presented our narrator (“commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed.”) What we don’t have is a dramatic scene unfolding to show us this choice.
This first page introduces us to five characters without giving us any real sense of them as people. There’s the narrator (who is in his or her mid 40’s – the fact that we have no idea even about gender is indicative of the lack of character development); his/her sisters Celia and Katie, Nana, and Reni, Celia’s wayward daughter. That’s a lot of characters for a first page especially in the absence of action or dialogue, and when we don’t yet have any setting or real sense of time or place (everything is presented in the past tense). What we do have is a lot of explanations, theories, and beliefs – all of which could definitely come into the novel as we learn more about the narrator, but which seem very ‘non-fiction’-esque when laid out so fully in a first page. Despite these significant issues, however, there are definite stirrings of a voice for this narrator.  Brave submitter, I think that if you use this first page as an exploration of your narrator’s voice and POV, then you have a solid foundation on which to build a compelling first page.
Specific Comments
Given the major concerns I raised in my overall comments, I thought the most useful feedback I could give was to highlight specific issues and recommendations in bold/italics throughout the text of this first page. I hope these will be received in the spirit in which they are intended – as honest and helpful feedback that our brave submitter can use to start drafting a great first page. Again, here goes!
INNOCENT TO A FAULT (Odd title choice – doesn’t really seem to mesh with the story outline that follows)
Thirty-three years ago, on a sunny October afternoon, driving a classic GTO that he’d just stolen from his neighbor’s carport, a teenager murdered our parents. (This first line has too many details and yet is still strangely distancing – my recommendation is to either start with a visceral/vivid flashback to that day 33 years ago, or start with a scene in which the narrator is reminded of this traumatic event. We need to be taken straight into a scene and shown the full impact of this event on the narrator’s life. At the moment everything is merely being told to us as readers.)
Celia was 18, Katie was 16, and I was 12 when the Springville police notified us about the horrible accident. (We have nothing to ground us in the scene or make us care about the narrator or his sisters – age specifics seem unnecessary when we can’t picture who any of these characters are) Because the kid was about my age, he was given a rap to the knuckles as punishment. At that devastating time, I didn’t know who I hated more—the delinquent for destroying so many lives, or the legal system for saying, “Boys will be boys.” (Too much telling. Let the reader see the scene in the courtroom when he was sentenced. You need to decide in this first page whether your scene is set in the past or the present – at the moment we’re just being told the backstory.)
Nana said the hate I felt harmed me more than anyone, so I tried keeping it in check. But I failed badly, mainly because I needed to feel something and since I couldn’t love my parents any longer, hate filled the void. (Too much telling. We don’t know anything about the family let alone the character of Nana. Show us why the narrator was harmed more than anyone. Have the story unfold about the failure and how hate filled the void.)
During those early days of loss, feeling more anger than a child ever should, I came to two conclusions. One, that sometimes hating a person feels good, no matter how self-destructive.  And two, people who hurt others should face punishment, with no excuses allowed. Or more simply, if they couldn’t do the time, they should not have done the crime. (Show us this and structure a scene to demonstrate this to us. A conversation between siblings perhaps on the anniversary of their parents death (?)…)
I know some will disagree, but I believe those who commit crimes are selfish to the core. They figure what they want is more important than what’s right. If selfish behavior could be obliterated, murders, thefts, rapes, all crimes would go down significantly. (This reads as an opinion piece not the opening to a novel)
My sister Celia is of a different mind. She believes sometimes good people do bad things, and each situation should have room for wiggle, which was why her daughter turned out the way she had. Reni had been wiggling out of trouble since puberty, with Celia always nearby, excuse in hand. (Again we’re just being told characters’ opinions and behavior. We need to inhabit a scene where this is shown to us. Maybe this first page has Reni and the narrator and his sister Celia at a family function where this plays out in terms of action and dialogue.) 
A few weeks ago Reni got involved in trouble that even Celia couldn’t justify. (Too vague.) The scheme was criminal, and it all hinged on me. (Again too vague – is it petty crime, is it murder? – could be anything.) I learned about the plot during an unexpected visit from my niece. (Let us see this visit. Let us see the confrontation. It sounds like it is the pivotal event which sets the story in motion so we have to see it.)
With little preamble, Reni presented me with two choices: commit a felony, which would keep my family safe, or refuse and see my family destroyed. (We need may more details about the family dynamics and characters to understand this. If this is the critical conflict in the novel we need dramatic build up and a real scene to see this play out…) It was then that I understood Celia’s wiggle room philosophy that sometimes a good person has only bad options. (Again we have no real sense of character yet so why as readers should we care about the narrator’s dilemma or Celia’s philosophy?)
I thought about those bad options—while being more scared than I’ve ever been in my life—and made my decision. (At this stage the reader has no idea why the narrator was scared or the basis for making the decision. We don’t even really understand the basis for the ‘bad options’ being presented. We need a real story presenting this dilemma in dramatic terms)
I don’t know if I would make the same choice today. (I like this as an end line but we need a scene before this that builds character and dramatic tension so it can resonate)
(end of Chapter 1) (I don’t understand this either – this is only a page – how can it be the end of Chapter 1 when nothing in dramatic terms has actually happened?)
So TKZers, I’d love to hear your guidance and feedback to help our brave submitter on his/her path to producing a great first page. Looking forward to seeing your comments!

Wood, Writing, and Wacky Ideas

by Steve Hooley

I love wood—growing trees, harvesting lumber, cutting firewood, making things out of wood. There’s no official name for a lover of wood, but someone proposed “lignophile” (ligno – Latin for wood + phile – Greek for love). That would be me.

I grew up in rural Ohio in a house on a wooded lot. As a boy, I roamed the woods, built a treehouse, mowed the trails, and repaired the fences. I didn’t realize how much my early years had affected me until I finished college and got married.

Being the typical newlywed with very little income, a family to provide for, and free furniture sitting on every curb for anyone to take, I began hauling old furniture home to my garage and repairing it. The style of our house was “early marriage.”

After a few years of doing this, I became interested in building my own furniture and began collecting tools. When I returned to my home community after medical school and residency, I began heating our house with firewood, cut, split, hauled, and stacked from the family woods.

Fast forward forty years, and I purchased the family property (house and 28-acre woods) from my parents. My wife and I now live in my enchanted forest, where I continue to be terminally afflicted with lignophilia.

We heat our house in the winter with firewood harvested during September and October. It is hard work, my wife continues to remind me, and we are getting older. But I enjoy keeping the house a toasty 74 degrees while the wind is blowing and the temperature outside dips below freezing. A heating bill of zero is a nice bonus.

I am always looking for easier ways to handle the firewood. We burn 8-9 cords a winter. That’s a lot of wood. And this year, because of above-average rain with soft soil and several windstorms, we’ve had five large trees blow down in our yard and on the forest trails, extra wood to cut, split, and stack.

I’ve cut up those trees into firewood, but I’m running out of places to stack it. And that introduces the topic of this post, experimentation and trying new ideas. I hate the extra time it takes to build an end to a wood stack (a crisscrossed, log-cabin-style, wood column). I’m eventually going to burn it, and then I have to build another one. What a waste of time. So, this year, I stacked the extra wood between trees. But I’m running out of trees in the wood-storage area.

And that’s when I tried a colossal, stupid experiment. I didn’t want to build any ends to brace the stack, so I thought, “Why not build the stack in a big circle? No ends, right?” So, I tried it.

Well, the stack reached about two feet. Because the circumference of the outside circle (created by the ends of the wood farther from the center) was greater than the inside circle (created by the ends of the wood closer to the center), the outer end of wood pieces dropped into gaps, and the pile started to lean.

Being a fan of experimentation, I was too stubborn to start over. “Let’s see what we can learn from “our mistake.” (I had now pulled my wife into my insane plot.) I began gradually moving subsequent layers in toward the center of the circle as I stacked higher to compensate for the leaning. Now my stack was starting to look like an igloo.

No, we couldn’t junk the idea and start over. We needed to finish what we started, learn any more lessons that could be gleaned from “our experiment.” So, we labored on.

The pile survived at 4-5 feet high without falling. We’ll see if it withstands the winter winds. The Roman arch is supposed to be a strong design element, right?

I was just beginning to close the circle, when my wife said, “How are you going to get inside the circle to put the tarp on and off the wood?”

Oh, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that. I should have put in two posts (creating an entry into the circle) that the pile could lean against on either side. But I might as well have dug a post hole at either end of a long straight pile, and I was too lazy for that. That was the whole purpose, to save time, right? And then another idea hit me. I could put in an open box structure—open on both ends to walk through, no digging required—so the wood could be stacked against both sides, supporting itself, and I would have a doorway into my magic garden.

My wife groaned. We left a “dip” in our pile at about two feet high so I could climb over it. I might yet build that box, maybe, unless I get another idea.

Bottom line, my genius circle of success, turned out to be a giant dome-shaped debacle. But…I had not given up. I stuck with my junker, wacky idea all the way to the bloody end, “learning” from my mistakes. Or as the politicians say when they’ve created a disaster, “We must investigate this, so we can prevent this failure in the future.” Right.

So, now to you, TKZ community. How far down the road that’s not working do you drive your clunker of an idea before you abandon it and scurry off to the new manuscript lot? Do you hang in there, try to repair the clunker, and see what you might learn from a “failed experiment?” Or, do you quickly trade in the old beast for a shiny new one?

Tell us about one of your “failed” experiments. Catharsis is good for the soul.

Chatting With The Pros

By John Gilstrap

Top left is Ann Hawkins of John Hawkins & Associates. Center bottom is my editor, Michaela Hamilton of Kensington Publishing.

I don’t think I’ve posted this here already, but if so, it’s probably worth another look from people who are interested in an insider’s view of the traditional publishing game. In this video from my YouTube channel, I sat down with Anne Hawkins, my agent, and Michaela Hamilton, my longtime editor at Kensington Books to get industry professionals’ views on the kinds of topics that are often discussed here on The Killzone.

I thought it was a bit of a coup to get everyone together at once, so the video is admittedly a bit long, but I also think it’s well worth the time. If you want to jump around, here are links to the individual topics:

00:00 Introduction

02:00 Do editors and agents work well together?

04:09 Managing author expectations

05:16 Do publishers nurture new authors?

08:33 The slush pile: What happens with unsolicited manuscripts?

10:16 Do authors need agents?

10:53 Deal points: the author’s advance is only one consideration

12:53 Deal breakers, clients from hell, & you’ve got to do your research

16:12 Traditional publishing is starving for new writers

19:09 What it means for an author to have a platform?

23:20 Are conferences important?

I hope you find something useful in the video. If nothing else, you can watch really great people hanging out with me.