Reigniting The Passion

By John Gilstrap

Let me get this out of the way first: I love what I do. I am privileged and honored to make my living by entertaining people with stories. People ask me if or when I intend to retire someday, and I don’t even know what that means. When a novelist “retires”, do the stories just go away? Do characters somehow stop appearing in his head? I’ve always figured that as long as readers keep reading what I write, I’ll continue to feed them with stories.

That said, 2020 has been a helluva year. Beyond all the other weirdness that’s been inflicted on all of us, this is also the year that I signed on to write two full-length thrillers. As always, my next Jonathan Grave thriller will hit the stands in July, but before that, February 23, 2021, will see the release of Crimson Phoenix, the first book in a new series that I’m confident I’ll hawk in a post that is closer to the publication date.

A few weeks ago, our buddy James Scott Bell wrote a post here on TKZ about how Erle Stanley Gardner churned out 100,000 words per month for fifty years. I’m not that guy. If I can pound out 2,500 words in a day, I’m thrilled. My record for one day was 8,000 words and that left me exhausted. I’m not cut out for that kind of production.

So, here we are, in the middle of the pandemic stuff, and as stress rose, avenues for relaxation were shut down.

As a relief valve, I got myself a Zoom account. Every Wednesday evening, I gather with two author buddies at a virtual bar for virtual happy hour. These are folks I’ve known for decades. Every meeting starts with a toast, and then we shoot the sh*t for a couple of hours. It’s surprisingly refreshing.

Because we’re writers, we complain a lot. There’s life, a little bit of politics, the state of the industry, and the ups and downs of daily life.

Sooner or later, we inevitably come to the subject of movies. We talk about some of the contemporary stuff that’s out there (thank God for Amazon Prime and Netflix!), but the real passion for all of us turns out to be Westerns. Tombstone is, of course, the greatest Western of all time–argue this point at your own peril–and there is considerable disagreement about The Wild Bunch being a close second. Shane is a favorite of one of the revelers, but I must confess that I don’t agree. I mean, Alan Ladd? Really?

Then it happened. I said, “We should write a serial Western.”

In that instant, a new project was born. Over the course of 30 minutes, we worked out the only rules: The story will be set in 1880, and each of us will write from the point of view of our own characters. My character is Jake Bristow, a grieving farmer from Virginia. Somehow, for reasons yet unknown, we will all end up in an Oklahoma town on the same date for what will be an epic and legendary gunfight against bad guys we have yet to determine.

Logistically, we each write a chapter in turn. I started the effort and passed it on to the next author in the line, who put brilliance on the page, and then Author #3 took his turn. The ball is back in my court now. In only 9,500 word, we now know who the characters are, what their motivations are, and they’ve already crossed paths. Hint: They don’t like each other very much yet. But we do know why they’re headed to Oklahoma.

At our most recent happy hour, we all revealed that individually, we haven’t had this much fun at the keyboard in a long, long time. The project is liberating. I’m writing in a completely new, different voice and I’m getting lost in new lines of research. Perhaps most refreshing is the element that is inherently missing in writing: the thrill of teamwork among friends. What I find most fascinating is how our vastly different writing styles work in a single stitched-together narrative.

And yes, I’m being deliberately circumspect about mentioning the other authors’ names. That’s not my place.

Now, to the point of this post. The cooperative Western project has reignited the passion for writing in all of us. It’s as if by shifting to another project that is strictly for fun, if only for a few thousand words at a time, the elements that stir creativity get a fresh swirl. That inures to the benefit of every other project on our plates.

I’ve stated in this space more than a few times that half of being a professional writer (a professional anything, really) is showing up to work every day. During the dark days of summer, I confess that showing up had become a drag. Now, I can’t wait. I’m getting up earlier, spending more time at the keyboard. I’m enjoying the process again.

So what about you folks? What are your tricks for reigniting the passion for writing that you know is there, but sometimes dwindles?



It’s STILL A Dark And Stormy
Night…Thank Goodness

By PJ Parrish

I’m a little under the weather this week, so this one will be short and sweet. Okay, not sweet. Maybe snarky. Or snirky with chuckles. Because what else can you be when you are confronted with the utterly stink-ola winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Awards?

You know Edward Bulwer-Lytton, right? (That’s him above, by the way). He’s the writer who gave us the wonderful “It was a dark and stormy night…” It was the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

So many things we could pick apart there, right crime dogs? First, contrary to the advice of Elmore Leonard, he starts out with the weather. Second, contrary to James Bell, he slips in a — gasp! — semi-colon. Third, he TELLS us we’re in London instead of finding a graceful way of showing us his location. And fourth, the rest is just a hot wet mess.

To be fair, Edward Bulwer-Lytton was considered quite the writer in his day, even more popular than Dickens. He coined the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword” and “the almighty dollar.” And he gave us the useful barb “the great unwashed.”  Among Bulwer-Lytton’s lesser-known contributions to literature was that he convinced Dickens to revise the ending of Great Expectations to make it more happily-ever-after.

So how did Edward become a Snoopy cartoon punchline? Back in the ’80s, a San Jose State graduate student named Scott Rice, was sentenced to write a paper on a minor Victorian novelist of his choosing and opted for Bulwer-Lytton. Years later, Professor Rice came up with the idea for the contest. The contest became an international phenomenon, getting thousands of entries every year.

I love reading these every year. (Click here to read them all) The winners are, to me, the Lucille Balls of writing. Lucy Ricardo was infamous in I Love Lucy for being tone-deaf, but Ball herself was an accomplished singer.  Likewise, it takes a pretty darn good writer to write wretched stuff on purpose. So, without further ado, here is the Grand Prize winner for 2020, by Lisa Kulber of San Francisco:

Her Dear John missive flapped unambiguously in the windy breeze, hanging like a pizza menu on the doorknob of my mind.

Now, we critique a lot of opening lines here at TKZ, so let’s examine why this works so well. First, there is the substitution of the word “missive” for the merely banal “letter.” Then we get the nicely active verb “flapped,” but it is gloriously underlined by the adverbial hair ball “unambiguously.” And then, the pièce de résistance — the vivid simile “hanging like a pizza menu” overlaid by the metaphoric wonder “the doorknob of my mind.”  It takes real talent to mix both simile and metaphor…so gleefully gelatinous.  I am in awe.

Okay, a couple more. And this one, crime dogs, is near and dear to our black hearts. The First Prize Award in Detective Crime Fiction this year went to Yale Abrams of Santa Rosa, Ca.

When she walked into my office on that bleak December day, she was like a breath of fresh air in a coal mine; she made my canary sing. 

Man, that’s good. Short, sweaty…definite sense of mood here, right? And notice how gracefully Yale manages to convey that our narrator is male without even telling us? Let’s move on to the Detective Fiction Dishonorable Mentions. And we don’t even have to leave the pebbled-glass office to do it. From Jarrett Dement of Eau Claire:

She sauntered into his smoke-filled office with legs that, although they didn’t go quite all the way to heaven, definitely went high enough for him to see that she was a giraffe. 

What I love about this opening is the amuse-bouche at the end. This is so pedestrian until we get to the unexpected injection of raw animal passion at the end. Here’s another from Paul Kolas of Orlando:

The first thing I noticed about the detective’s office was how much it reminded me of the baggage claim at a nearby airport: the carpet was half a century out of date, it reeked of cigarettes and cheap booze, and I was moderately certain that my case had been lost.

Such an assured sense of voice at work here. You will never mistake this writer for Patricia Highsmith. Onward, to a gem from Leo Gordon of Los Angeles:

The fact that the cantor’s body was covered with a lamb shank, salt water and a mysterious concoction called charoseth, led Chief Passover Homicide investigator Ari Ben-Zvi to describe the pattern of murders as “uneven, perhaps unleavened.”

Kudos to our writer for dropping us right into an action scene — the discovery of a dead body. As James always says, act first, explain later. And I love the symbolic use of the charoseth. It is a sauce used in seders, composed of bitter herbs and sweet fruits, so obviously the writer is using it to set up the idea that this murder will create mixed emotions, a nice motif to support his theme.

And here is our final winner, from Belinda Daly of London.

Handsome French policeman, Andre Poiret, grappled with the puffed-up albino hitman, who was about to shoot the beautiful high-class call girl, Gigi Lamour, who was taking a shower in her apartment, with his big gun. 

Again, we are smack-dad in an action scene. No throat-clearing here. Note the adjective “handsome,” which of course tips us off that Andre is the hero. Ditto “beautiful” which tells us Gigi will be a love interest before she is found floating face down under the Pont Neuf in chapter 20. And leave it to a great stylist to leave the best for last — “with his big gun.”  Obviously, a subtle hint at the sexual tension underscoring the story’s romantic subplot. It couldn’t have been placed more zestfully.

And with that, my friends, I am off to have a good hot shower and a strong martini, one olive and two Advils, please.



Concrete Tips for Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue to Any Story

by Jodie Renner, fiction editor & author of writing guides

Are you in the process of writing a novel? Maybe a thriller or other popular fiction that you hope will grab readers and really sell? Besides a great character and a fascinating plot, you’ll also need some tried-and-true fiction-writing techniques to take your story up a level or three.

To keep readers engaged and eagerly turning the pages, all genres of fiction, not just thrillers, need tension and intrigue – and a certain amount of suspense. And of course, you’ll need to ratchet up the tension, intrigue, and suspense a lot more if you’re writing a fast-paced, nail-biting, page-turner.

Here are some techniques for engaging your readers and keeping them riveted: 

~ First, create a protagonist that readers will care about, and give him some worries and secrets. Make your hero or heroine intriguing and complex, clever and resourceful. But not perfect – make them vulnerable too, with an Achilles heel and some inner conflict, regrets, and secrets. In most cases, you want your protagonist to be likeable too, or at least have some endearing traits to make readers worry about her and root for her. If readers can’t identify with or bond with your character, it’s pretty hard to make them care what happens to her. Essential Characteristics of a Thriller Hero

~ Get up close and personal. Use deep point of view (first-person or close third person) to get us into the head and body of your main character right from the opening paragraph. Show his thoughts, fears, hopes, frustrations, worries, and physical and sensory reactions in every scene. Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View.

~ Show your hero or heroine in action in the first paragraphs. Rather than opening with description, background info, or your character alone musing, it’s best to jumpstart your story with your lead interacting with someone else who matters to them, preferably with a bit of discord and tension. And show his/her inner thoughts and emotional reactions, maybe some frustration or anxiety.  Act First, Explain Later.

~ Give your character a problem to solve right from the get-go. It can be minor, but creating an early conflict that throws your lead off-balance will make your readers worry about him. A worried reader is an engaged reader.

~ Withhold information. Don’t tell your readers too much too soon. This is so important and a common weakness for new fiction writers. Hold off on critical information. Hint at a traumatic or life-changing event early on, then reveal fragments of info about it little by little, through dialogue, thoughts, and brief flashbacks, to tantalize readers and keep them wondering and worrying.

~ Keep the story momentum moving forward. Don’t get bogged down in lengthy descriptions, backstory, or exposition. Keep the action and interactions moving ahead, especially in the first chapter. Work in background details and other info little by little, on an “as-needed” basis, through dialogue or flashbacks – not as the author/narrator interrupting the scene to explain things to the readers. See my blog post Don’t Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character! 

~ Introduce a significant, meaningful story problem. Now that your readers care about your main character, insert a major challenge, dilemma, goal, or threat within the first ten chapters, a big one that won’t be resolved until the end. Create an overarching sentence about this to keep in mind as you’re writing your story:

“Will (name) survive/stop/find/overcome (ordeal/person/difficulty/threat) on time?”

~ Show, don’t tell. Show all your critical scenes in real time as they’re happening, with action, reaction, and dialogue. Show your main character’s inner feelings and physical and emotional reactions. Don’t explain as the author or narrator – stay in the character’s viewpoint. And don’t have one character tell another about an important event or scene after it happened. Instead, show that scene as it’s unfolding or as a flashback. Of course, briefly narrate or “tell” transition scenes. Tips for showing instead of telling.

~ Make use of compelling, vivid sensory imagery to take us right there, with the protagonist, vividly experiencing and reacting to whoever/whatever is challenging or threatening him. Show his reactions to his environment, including what he’s seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, even tasting, and also any discomfort – is he hot, cold, tired, stressed, hungry, thirsty, afraid? Is sweat pouring down his back? Are his feet sore? These details bring him to life for the readers, who feel that hunger, thirst, fatigue, or discomfort too. 

~ Use brief flashbacks at key moments to reveal your viewpoint character’s childhood traumas, unpleasant events, secrets, emotional baggage, hangups, dysfunctional family, etc. Show these in real time for greater impact.

~ Insert some conflict/tension and a change into every scene. There should be something unresolved in every scene. Your character enters the scene with an objective or goal (agenda), but she encounters obstacles in the scene, so she is thwarted in her efforts to reach her goal. By the end of the chapter or scene, she or circumstances have changed.

~ Put tension on every page. Every page needs some tension, even if it’s just doubt, questioning, disbelief, disagreement, suspicion, or resentment simmering below the surface.

~ Add in tough choices and moral dilemmas. Devise ongoing difficult decisions and inner conflict for your lead character. Besides making your plot more suspenseful, this will also make your protagonist more complex, vulnerable, and intriguing.

~ Delay answers to critical plot questions. Look for places in your story where you’ve answered readers’ questions too soon, so have missed a prime spot to increase tension and suspense. Draw out the time before answering that question. In the meantime, hint at it from time to time to remind readers of its importance.

~ Plan a few plot twists. Readers are surprised and delighted when the events take a turn they never expected. Don’t let your readers become complacent, thinking it’s easy to figure out the ending, or they may stop reading.

If you’re writing a thriller or other suspense fiction, ratchet up the tension and conflict even more with these techniques: 

~ Create a cunning antagonist. Your villain needs to be as clever, determined and resourceful as your protagonist – or even more so. Make him or her a serious force to be reckoned with! See my post here on TKZ, Create a Fascinating, Believable Antagonist.

~ Ratchet up the problem to a serious threat, and make it personal. Your hero or someone he cares about is personally threatened. It’s a life-or-death situation.

~ Establish a sense of urgency, a tense mood, and generally fast pacing. Do this by your choice of words and tight writing.

~ Use the setting to establish the mood and create suspense. This is the equivalent of ominous music, harsh lighting, strange camera angles, or nasty weather in a scary movie.

~ Create a mood of unease by showing the main character feeling apprehensive about something or someone or by showing some of the villain’s thoughts and intentions.

~ Keep hampering your hero or heroine throughout the novel to increase worry, tension, and suspense. Stir in some of these ingredients: a ticking clock, obstacles, chases, traps, restrictions, handicaps, injuries, bad luck, etc.

~ Keep raising the stakes. Keep asking yourself, “How can I make things worse for the protagonist?” As the challenges get more difficult and the obstacles more insurmountable, readers worry more and suspense grows.

~ Get us into the head of the villain too. For increased anxiety and suspense, show us the thoughts and intentions of your antagonist from time to time. This way the readers find out critical information the hero or heroine doesn’t know, things we desperately want to warn her about!

~ Use foreshadowing to incite curiosity. Tease the readers with innuendos. Drop subtle hints of troubles to come. Hint at the main character’s past secrets. What is the character worried about or afraid might happen? Capitalize on this. For more specific tips on this technique, see my TKZ article, Fire up Your Fiction with Foreshadowing.

~ Add in some revelations and epiphanies to put a twist on things and reward readers for their interest and involvement.

~ Use cliff-hangers. Put your hero or heroine in hot water at the end of some chapters to incite reader curiosity and questions and compel them to go to the next chapter. Then maybe use a jump cut to go to a different scene, so they have to read more to find out what happened in the previous chapter.

For a list of techniques to consider when writing suspense fiction, see my Checklist for Adding Suspense & Intrigue here on TKZ.

Then, in the Revision Stage: 

~ Amp up, condense, or delete any scenes that lag, and tighten up your writing.  Are some of your sentences and paragraphs too long? Are you inadvertently repeating words, ideas, actions, or imagery in close proximity? Go back and make sure every scene, paragraph, sentence, and word enhance the story and drive the plot forward. Critical Scenes Need Nail-Biting Details.

Use short paragraphs and mix it up with brief narration and snappy dialogue. Vary the sentence structure and length. Use shorter sentences at tense times. More tips: Pick up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner.

~ Word choice is critical too. Vary your words. Use specific, evocative nouns, and verbs that really capture the action and add tension, rather than overused ones like “walked” and “ran.” For examples and more, see Nail it with Just the Right Word.

Have some of these techniques worked for you? Which ones do you find the most helpful in your own writing? Do you have any other tips to help new suspense fiction writers create a novel that will captivate readers, sell lots of copies, and garner great reviews? Or examples from your own work or a bestselling novel you’ve read? Let us know in the comments below.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the author of three writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. You can find Jodie at, at her Amazon Author Page, her blog Resources for Writers, and on Facebook


The End of the Story…

I took my 1999 Honda Accord into my mechanic last week for its regular oil change and inspection. The body showed its age but the car still rode nicely, even beneath the weight of its 333,500+ miles. 

One of three things can happen when one takes a car made in the last century and with high mileage in for an oil change and a look under the hood.  The first is that the mechanic can come into the waiting room and say to you, “You’re all set.” The second is that he can come up to you with a clipboard in hand and say, “You need your (fill in the blank) replaced, but hey, we can do that right now if you like!” The third is that he can stick his head into the waiting room and say, “You need to see this.” “This” is never good. Rest assured that he is not going to tell you that he found a winning Super Lotto slip taped to the engine block.

Number Three happened to me. I was solemnly ushered into the workshop as an organ dirge started playing in my head.  My car was up on a lift and appeared okay until the mechanic started pointing at certain areas with a pen and demonstrating that particular areas were loose.  I am not mechanically inclined but I could see that the undercarriage had some major rust in a couple of strategic places where the thigh bone connected to the knee bone, and the knee bone connected to the leg bone, and…you get the idea. My car was breaking apart. I received a long and patient explanation to the effect that repairing it would cost much more than the car was worth, what with the age of and the miles on the car. In answer to my question of how long it would last in its present state, the mechanic shook his head and said, “Possibly five years, if you don’t hit a pothole, but more likely five miles. Or five blocks.” His summation — “You need a new car” — was one that required no further explanation. 

Some retroactive anxiety reared its head.  I had been driving my granddaughter and her friend all over the city during the Labor Day weekend in a car that was ready to come apart. The realization of what might have happened sealed the deal. I did some extensive research over a couple of days and leased something called a Honda Fit Hatchback. It has all sorts of bells and whistles that I am getting used to — I can now answer my phone using the steering wheel and rudely hang up on people, just like Ray Donovan  — but it is not much of an adjustment. 

I am a little upset. I try not to get too attached to the things of this world.  Cars specifically have never been important to me other than as a means of getting reliably from Point A to Point B. I am surprised by my emotional attachment in this case, however. I had a lot of physical and psychic DNA in that Accord. I used it to drive my children thousands of miles, to schools, parties, vacation destinations, movies, friends’ houses, shopping, concerts, and doctor visits. My granddaughter has been a passenger in it on an average of once a week since she was born almost fourteen years ago. I did some business traveling as well with it, going to and through thirty-seven states and having some adventures along the way, including a Pulp Fiction experience in Arizona and an encounter with tribal police in New Mexico which could have gone badly if not for my charming courtesy and winning smile.  I witnessed the most horrific traffic accident I have ever seen outside of a small town in North Texas. I drove to author conventions in Chicago, Indianapolis, New York, Nashville, Madison, Cleveland, and Phoenix,  made well over a two dozen trips to New Orleans and southern Louisiana, and somehow acquired a bunch of dear friends in the process. My Accord was always part of the story. Now it is gone. I donated it to a charity and watched as it boogied on down the road and across the rainbow bridge without me. 


The Honda Fit has a transmission which is called  “continuously variable,” a term that accurately describes my mood right now. It will in all probability be my last car, given my age and the manner in which my older friends seem to decline precipitously once they hit the downside of seventy. That’s part of a story that will be written at a future time by someone else. 

And on that note…

…have at it, chillun! Please tell us a car story, or your favorite book involving a car,.whether as part of a book written by someone else (you by all means can mention Christine or Drive), written by you, or a personal experience. Thank you and good day. 

All photos by Al Thumbs Photography

The soundtrack for today’s submission:

Rapture — Blondie 

Marquee Moon — Television

Y’All Think She’d Be Good 2 Me — C. C. Adcock

This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) — Talking Heads 

Spare Me a Little of Your Love — Fleetwood Mac

Looking for A Kiss — New York Dolls

What a Party — Fats Domino

Soul Kitchen — X

It’s All Over — Willie Nile

Sorry You Asked — Dwight Yoakam

Time Has Come Today — Chambers Brothers

The Kids Are Alright — The Who

Bitches Brew (album) — Miles Davis


Reader Friday – Traditions

Reader Friday – Traditions.

TraditionstraditionsSundown today marks the start of the year 5781 on the Jewish calendar. Our family tradition revolves around the meal (which is true for virtually all Jewish holidays–they tried to kill us, we prevailed, let’s eat). Sweet dishes are the norm on Rosh Hashanah, to kick the new year off to a sweet start. At our table, dessert is always Pflaumkuchen (plum cake). The recipe varied, depending on which relative was in charge of dessert, and living where we do now, prune plums are almost impossible to get, but regardless of the details, it’s always going to be plum cake for dessert.

Any holiday traditions you’d like to share, food or otherwise? Have you ever included them in your writing?


Top Ten Tips on Formatting eBooks from MS Word

Indie publishing an eBook is a lot of work. It takes creative imagination along with some technical knowledge. And, it requires a lot of commitment mixed with dogged determination and a blind belief that someone is actually going to read the stuff.

Sometimes I wonder why I subject myself to this nonsense. I’ve been indie writing eBooks for eight years now, and I’ve put twenty for-sale publications online. But, I keep at it day-in and day-out—partly thanks to a simple system of formatting eBooks from Microsoft Word.

Notice how I used the term “indie” instead of “self” publishing. That’s because I don’t publish all by myself. Rather, I have a lot of help from a proofreader, a cover artist, and a whole bunch of friendly folks who I don’t know at Amazon, Kobo, and Nook. Someday I’ll make new online friends at Apple and Google as well.

It takes money to indie publish eBooks, and there’s no getting around it. Mary, my proofreader, and Elle, my cover designer, like to get paid and they’re totally worth it. I also pay for promotions through discount email sites like Booksy (Free and Bargain), Ereader News Today, and Fussy Librarian as well as click-ads on BookBub and Amazon.

However, I don’t pay for eBook formatting services which could run $100.00 or more for a proper and professional product (not a ten-buck Fiver special). Doing the math… at a $2.00 royalty that’d be at least 50 sales to break even on formatting costs. Besides, I’ve found the formatting process to be one of the best self-editing tools out there.

I know many writers detest using a PC infested with Word. They’d rather use a tool like Scrivener or their Mac equipped with Vellum. That’s fine, but I’m sticking with what I know, and I’d like to share my top ten tips for formatting eBooks from MS Word.

Tip #1 — Understand What eBooks Really Are

This sounds basic, and it is. If you look up “eBook” in the dictionary, you’ll find it’s a noun meaning “a book composed in, or converted to, digital format for display on a computer screen or handheld device.” An eBook is really a collection of digital characters forming a readable document.

There are two main eBook types. The most popular format is a Standard eBook that uses real-time, flowable text where the end-user can make personal changes to features like font type and size (settings). There are no page numbers (pagation) on standard eBooks because the total page numbers change according to the user’s size preference. Most novels are formatted as standard eBooks so they can be conveniently read on all types of devices like eReaders, desktops, laptops, and smartphones.

The other format is a fixed-layout eBook. These are popular for graphic-laden publications with images, graphs, tables, and charts where the material size can’t be changed. The graphics won’t “flow” across the page if you change settings but you can zoom in and out. Fixed-layout eBooks are popular with publications like cookbooks, children’s books, comic books, graphic novels, and educational textbooks.

Typically, you’d format a standard eBook for:

  • Publications with mostly continuous text
  • Works with small images embedded between paragraphs
  • Ensuring maximum usability on smaller devices like smartphones

Non-typically, you’d format a fixed-layout eBook for:

  • Preserving text over images
  • Wrapping text around images
  • Setting background colors
  • Using multi-columns or horizontal orientation

Tip #2 — Know the eBook File Types

There are over twenty eBook file types. By file type, I mean the software they’re written in. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to eBook formatting. However, as far as I know, you can convert a Microsoft Word document into any file type.

It’s important to know why there are so many eBook file types. It’s called technical evolution and business strategies. Some might call it money.

The eBook concept has been around a long time. Back in the 1930s, a guy by the name of Bob Brown got the idea of a “readie” after watching a “movie”. As Bob put it, “A simple machine which I can carry or move around, attach to any old electric light bulb, and read hundred-thousand word novels in ten minutes if I want to, and I want to.”

Bob was a little ahead of his time, but Michael S. Hart wasn’t. Hart is credited with inventing the first true eBook file type in 1971 when he worked as an engineer for Xerox in Illinois. He demonstrated his patent by typing the US Declaration of Independence into a digital file so it flashed up on a TV screen.

Sony upended Hart in 1990 with its Data Discman eBook player. So did Steven King. In 2000, King released the first true indie eBook with Riding The Bullet that was exclusive to online readers. It was downloaded 500,000 times in 48 hours.

And, along came Amazon. The ’Zon bought Mobipocket in 2005 and turned that eBook file technology into proprietary software exclusive to their Kindle eReader. I’m sure they intended to corner as much of the market as they could by allowing Amazon-published eBook files to be read only on Amazon-sold devices. Seems to me they did a good job of it.

That brings me to the three most popular eBook file types today—although there are over twenty in existence. All three file types have their own formatting quirks and quarks which a conversion software like Calibre looks after for you. All three files nicely work with a Word.doc… providing your format the Word.doc properly in the first place. The three main eBook file types are:

Amazon Mobi — This file is exclusive to Amazon and is also known as MobiAZW or .azw. Mobi files only read on an Amazon device like a Kindle or Kindle Fire. You can’t load a Mobi file on a regular reader like a Kobo or Nook, nor on an Apple product or in Google play. Don’t worry about how a Mobi file works. All you need to know is it’s picky about how you prepare a Word.doc for it.

EPub — This acronym stands for electronic publication, and it was uniformly endorsed by an outfit called the International Digital Publishing Forum in 2007 to replace the older Open eBook file system. EPub is used exclusive of Amazon, and you can’t load an EPub file on a Kindle. Apparently, an Amazon black hole will open up and swallow you if you try. So, if you plan on “going wide” and publish on non-Amazon forums like Kobo, Nook, Apple, and Google, you’ll have to format your Word.doc as an EPub file.

Adobe PDF — Here we have the difficult child in the eBook file family. A Portable Document File is technically an electronic book, but some electronic publishers make it sit in the corner. PDF’s are great as technical eBooks that you can share online or use as an email list magnet, but they aren’t compatible files for commercial eBook sites. And, whatever you do, do not try to upload a PDF to a retailer in place of a properly-formatted Mobi or EPub file. It will turn into a mess.

Tip #3 — Appreciate How a Microsoft Word Document Works

Let me say that I’m not an expert on MS Word. Not by any means. I’ve written millions of words in this software program, but there’s a lot I don’t know about it. However, I know enough about Word to get it to do pretty much what I need it to, and I’m comfortable with that.

Microsoft Word is a word processing program. It’s the gold standard when it comes to managing text documents, and it’s used professionally and recreationally by over a billion people. No word processing tool even comes close to Word for popularity.

In 1981, Microsoft bought an existing processing program called Bravo. They had a top engineering team re-invent Bravo which they released as the Multi-Tool Word for Xenix Systems. It was meant to compete with WordPerfect which was the leader at that time, and its name was soon shortened to Word.

Word has been renovated many times over the past four decades. I use Word 2010 because I’m a Luddite and too cheap to upgrade to the new Word 2019. For eBook writing and formatting, my Word version works fine and I’m sticking with it on Windows 8.

Word wasn’t very popular at first. It was clunky and troublesome with a big learning curve. That changed as Word became more WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) and allowed users to customize their documents and view on-screen what the end product would look like.

My Word 2010 has eight tabs on the upper toolbar. I use five of them daily—file, home, insert, page layout, and review. The other three—references, mailings, and view—are there if needed.

MS Word has some marvelous shortcuts. They are real time-savers and can resuscitate an accidentally-erased page part or an entire document at the press of two keys. Here are the shortcuts I regularly use:

  • Control + A highlights the entire document
  • Control + C copies the highlighted portion
  • Control + F opens a search bar
  • Control + K opens a hyperlink window
  • Control + V pastes a copied piece of text
  • Control + X cuts a highlighted portion
  • Control + Z restores a delete

The Control + Z feature has gotten me out of more writing, editing, and formatting pickles than I can remember. Thank God the MS engineers built this into their Word software. It also transports with a Word.doc when you transfer it into an eBook formatting tool like Calibre.

Tip #4 — Become Very Familiar with Your MS Word Home Tab

Your home tab is the main tool belt for Word. Most features that you need to write an eBook are right there at your fingertips. Let’s go through the main tools and discuss what works best for drafting a Word document that easily formats or converts into a Mobi and EPub file

Font Face — Depending on the Word version you’re working in, you’ll have dozens and dozens of font styles to choose from. There are hundreds more available to download from the net. That’s all fine and well to get fancy on your Word doc, but that’s not okay when you go to format your eBook. No matter what font face you pick, Amazon’s Mobi proprietary software is going to output your font in a fixed serif style so you might as well use Times New Roman right off the bat. EPub platforms are a bit more font-friendly so you can use a serif style like Adobe Garamond or a sans serif typeface like Ariel.

Font Size — The nature of eBook operation is that the reader can modify their on-screen font size to suit their pleasure. However, keep your Word doc as clean and uniform as you can. I recommend that titles go in 24 point, introductions in 16 point, chapter headings in 14 point, and all text in 12 point. Do not use a font size larger or smaller than 12 for your main text body or you’ll regret it.

Bold, Italics & Underline — Both Mobi and EPub files will import hidden html code from Word that specializes your font accents like bold, italics, and underlines. They’ll convert from Word to an eBook file without having to identify strange-looking html symbols like <b>, </b>, <i>, </i>, <u>, </u>, etc.

Font Color — There’s no problem using a colored font in Word and having it formatted on either main eBook file. I’d strongly suggest keeping your font in standard black which should be your default font color. Deep reds or blues are nice to make a point but don’t even think about using any color except white for your background shading. It will not convert.

Bullets and Numbering — Also, there’s no problem getting automatic list numbering and billeting to convert from Word to an eBook file. It’s not like WordPress which has a hissy-fit if you try to import something creative.

Align Text — You should use align left for the vast majority of your document text. If you need to make a point with a scene break or something requiring a center text, that will show up fine on an eReader, too. Avoid using align right because it reads really weird on an eScreen.

Justify — Word lets you set your text with evenly aligned or justified left and right margins. That causes your words to stagger in spacing which looks crisp and clean on a Word screen. However, when you format a justified document into an eBook file it can look messy on an eReader. Do yourself a favor and don’t format your Word document with a Control + J justification. When a reader enlarges the font on their device, there will be ugly gaps in the word spacing.

Line and Paragraph Spacing — Use 1.15. That’s it. 1.15 only.

Style Boxes — Use the Normal setting for all text and Heading 1 for anything you want to appear in your table of contents (TOC). Set your style default to the font face, size, and color you want and leave it there. It’ll save a lot of formatting time. Ignore the No Spacing, Heading 2, Title, and Subtitle style boxes.

Find & Replace — This feature is irrelevant to formatting, but it sure makes your writing and editing life easier.

Tip #5 — Be Careful with Indents and Paragraphs

If there’s one area that could get you into a maximum-security eBook formatting prison, it’s screwing up indent and paragraph formatting on your Word document. I can’t stress this enough!!!

Most writers probably use the enter and tab keys for paragraph spacing and indenting the first line. This looks good on a Word doc and a PDF, but it’ll be a pile of doggy-doo when you see it on a Mobi or EPub file.

I do eBook formatting for friends, and I see this error repeatedly. To fix it, the Word doc has to be exorcised of this formatting demon. This is a big job if you try to fix this manually. The trick is to highlight the entire document and use the Find/Replace feature. You enter  ^t  in the Find field, put nothing in the Replace field, and click Replace All. It will reset your Word doc to a neutral format so you can properly rework it as Mobi and EPub compatible.

What you have to do (if you want industry-standard eBook formatting for paragraph indents and spacing) is to use the tiny little “paragraph” feature on the bottom center of the Word toolbar. Click on the enlarge icon which, at my age, you need glasses to see.

The paragraph window opens and offers you options for indents and spacing as well as line and page breaks. Do this:

  • Alignment — set on “left”
  • Indentation — set left and right at “0” (zero)
  • Special — set as “first line” (this is probably the most important eBook formatting tip)
  • Spacing — set before and after at “0” (zero)
  • Line Spacing — set at “single” (your main toolbar setting at 1.15 will override)
  • Line and Page Breaks – leave at the Word default setting (more on this coming up)

Terry Odell did a great piece on yesterday’s Kill Zone titled Ins and Outs of Indie Publishing: Going Wide. Terry nailed it with this advice on formatting, “Some basics are formatting in TNR, 12 point font, 1 inch margins all around, and use a paragraph style for indenting, NOT TABS. EVER.”

Tip #6 — Use Show and Hide

This MS Word feature is an absolute godsend to eBook formatters. It’s truly lifesaving. This is the show and hide symbol: ¶ It’s right up there at the center of your Word toolbar to the left of the style boxes. At least it’s there on Word 2010. I’m not sure about other versions, but I’m sure it’s not discontinued.

Show and Hide (¶) lets you view your Word doc behind the scenes. It allows you to check spacing, indents, font size, and little things like hidden bold, italics, and underline specialties that lie between lines and paragraphs. ¶ lets you adjust your entire document for uniformity. There will be non-conforming information in your document that you can’t see on a Word screen but will confuse the eBook conversion/formatting and it can become real dog-vom when it shows up as a Kindle, Kobo, Nook, Apple, or Google eFile.

Tip #7 — Be Careful With Page Breaks but Promote Page Layout

By design, eBooks are fluid and non-editable. Although there’s no way for an outside party to enable editing on a published eBook, the reader has total control over using their eReader in a personal manner. They can adjust all sorts of reading conditions from size to lighting, but they can’t modify the content.

That includes page breaks. You, as the writer in Word and the formatting in EPub or Mobi have total control on how you want to interrupt your reader’s flow. Be aware that they might not like pre-assigned page breaks. However, they’ll hate an eBook that isn’t properly formatted for page layout.

There are two schools of thought about placing page breaks into a Word doc destined for an eBook file. One is to leave page breaks out altogether and let the eFile software run the show. The other is to strategically place page breaks where they work to help the eFile, not hinder it.

The page break feature on Word is in the Page Layout tab at the top left third space, and it’s called “Breaks”. If you click on it, you’ll see a lot of options to stay away from. If you must use a page break, just put your cursor on the next paragraph indent and click “page”. You’ll see a line that interrupts your Word text and starts a new page. It does the same on an eFile.

Use page breaks sparingly. The beauty in an eReader is experiencing a continuous flow and a page break can take the reader right out of the book. I don’t place page breaks between chapters. The only place I put a page break is when I add a graphic like an inserted picture. The page break ensures the insert will show up as a whole on a screen and not be cut off.

There are two more highly-important features in Page Layout and you need to set them like this:

  • Indent Left: 0 cm
  • Indent Right: 0 cm
  • Spacing Before: 0 pt
  • Spacing After: 0 pt

Your left and right margins are likely set by default at 1 inch or 2.54 cm. If they are, leave them there. If not, make them your standard Word doc default setting. The reason you put paragraph spacing at 0 pt before and after is so you can manually set them with your spacer or enter bar when you review your document with the ¶ feature. If you have a mixture of automatic spacing and manual, your eFile format will be messed up.

Tip #8 — Insert Images that Don’t Get Messed Up

To eBook file credit, they’re image friendly. To their discredit, they’re quite picky about formatting from a Word document. With eBook formatting from MS Word, you can’t eat your cake and still have it too.

Like another activity, size matters in eBook formatting. Here’s the #1 rule when formatting images in a Word doc. Don’t do it.

Instead, prepare your images in another software form and save it as a jpg or png file. Once you have it eBook compatible, then use the Word Insert tab to paste the image where you want it in the Word doc. Mini-tip: Insert the image using the center align feature on the toolbar – not the justify one.

I use good old Paint to format an image headed for an eBook. I take a screenshot or download an internet-based jpeg or png and upload it to Paint. Then, I crop the image and size it to 500 pixels wide by whatever height works. I “save as” and then insert it into the Word doc. It then stays stable as an eBook image at a manageable 500 pixel-wide size despite what an end-user might do with setting changes on their reading device.

If you try to size images within Word, they’ll do what they want as an eFile and the professionalism of your formatting will be compromised. Remember the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid). There’s no need to complicate eBook image formatting as long as you import a pre-formatted image into Word before converting to an eFile like Mobi or EPub.

Tip #9 — Use Calibre for Formatting Word to Mobi or EPub

Like Word, I don’t profess to be a Calibre guru. In fact, the more I use Calibre as an eBook formatting/conversion tool, the more I KISS. Calibre can have a big learning curve if you want to know the geek stuff.

I don’t. I only want to write an eBook in Word, format/convert it into a Mobi or Epub file, and put the product up for sale on a retail platform. I don’t care about how the things work. You can download free software for Calibre here.

Don’t be intimidated by Calibre. It’s an eBook conversion software system designed like a pipeline. Schematically, here’s how it works:

  • Step 1 — Input Word doc format
  • Step 2 — Input Calibre Plugin (Mobi or EPub template)
  • Step 3 — Transform
  • Step 4 — Output Plugin (Mobi or EPub finished file)
  • Step 5 — Save eFile to your hard drive and/or flash drive
  • Step 6 — Upload your eFile to your eBook retailer’s dashboard

Functionally, here are the simple steps to convert a Word document into an eFile on Calibre:

  • Step 1 — Open Calibre
  • Step 2 — Click Add Books
  • Step 3 — Upload your Word.docx
  • Step 4 — Click Enter Metadata (you can leave this blank and move on)
  • Step 5 — Click OK
  • Step 6 — Verify Input Format is DOCX and set Output Format (you have a choice that includes EPUB and MOBI. AZW3 is also there, but just use MOBI for Amazon)
  • Step 7 — Click OK (the JOBS icon circles in the lower right. When it stops, you’re done)
  • Step 8 — Slick SAVE TO DISC and select the folder on your computer.

It’s now saved as formatted eFile that’s ready to put up for sale on a retail eBook site. There are a lot more things you can try on Calibre but if you KISS, that’s all you have to do. Note: You have to repeat the process for each eFile conversion.

That’s it. Formatting a Word document to an eBook is this straightforward. The trick is making sure your Word doc is eBook friendly. I can’t emphasize this enough!!!  Oh, BTW, save your Word document as a Word.docx. It’s the most recent form and it’s compressed with less chance of being digitally compromised.

Side Note: Amazon now allows you to directly upload a Word.docx to KDP, and their system will automatically convert it to a Mobi/AZW file. I’ve tried it and it wasn’t pretty. However, I’ve uploaded a Word.docx to Kobo and it came out great. You can also use an eBook aggregator like Draft2Digital or Smashwords to format your Word document, but they’ll take a 10% cut for their service. Again — the real trick is to make sure your Word.docx is properly set up before converting it to an eFile.

Tip #10 — Have Fun & Make Money

I have no ethical problem about making money from turning Word docs into eBooks. However, actually making money this way is an art on its own and when I find the secret I’ll gladly share it. For now, though, I’m having fun doing this.

How about you Kill Zoners? What’s your experience with MS Word and formatting eBooks? Please share what you know or ask what you don’t know.


Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner. Now, he’s a struggling indie publisher who writes crime stories on Word, formats them on Calibre, and flogs them on Amazon, Kobo, and Nook.

Garry lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia on Canada’s west coast. When not writing, Garry Rodgers spends his time putting around the saltwater and hiding from the taxman.


Help! I Have Flies in my Files

By Debbie Burke


Photo credit: Gabriel Manlake – Unsplash

Typos are the annoying, buzzing flies in a writer’s life. After 57 proofreads of your novel, you must have swatted every single one, right?

I sometimes wonder if typos, like flies, lay eggs throughout the manuscript. After everything is perfectly spelled, punctuated, and you’ve hit the “publish” button, suddenly the eggs hatch.

Wrong. Typos do not spontaneously appear. Much as I hate to admit it, I put them there.

Blatant misspelling is not a problem most of the time. More often, it’s transposed letters or transposed words, errors that are invisible because the word is spelled correctly—it’s just not the right word, or it’s in the wrong place.

For that reason, I’ve never depended on spellcheck.

Unfortunately, the more times you proof something, the less visible those little devils become. That’s why proofreaders with fresh eyes are invaluable. I can spot typos in someone else’s manuscript easily but am often blind to my own.

Recently, TKZ regular Kay DiBianca sent me a lovely email to say she’d enjoyed my latest thriller, Dead Man’s Bluff, particularly the twist at the end. Then she added she found a typo in Chapter 4 when the main characters come upon a dead deer in a Florida swamp. The sentence read: “Files buzzed thick around its open eyes…”

Photo credit: Sharon McCutcheon – Unsplash

Drat! I wondered where I’d put those darn files!

Then Kay shared a typo she’d caught while proofing her upcoming book:

I had written “died-in-the-wool” instead of “dyed-in-the-wool.” Our son said readers would think the character got run over by a sheep.

Photo credit: Pexels

Here’s another example that proves just how totally blind the author can be.

The librarian at an active senior community has been wonderfully supportive and included all my books in their collection. In Eyes in the Sky, she found a typo which she emailed me about. She noted the exact page where it appeared. I opened my copy to that page and read it over and over, searching for the typo. I emailed her back and asked which sentence the typo appeared in. She quoted it. I read and reread her email and couldn’t find a typo in her quote. Again, I stared at the sentence in the book for several more minutes and still couldn’t see it.

I was about to call her, admit humiliation, and ask what I was missing.

At last, my now-bleary, squinting eyes recognized it. The sentence was supposed to read: “Let’s go back to the hotel.” Instead, it said: “Let’s back go to the hotel.”

All the right words, correctly spelled…just in the wrong order. Because my brain knew the correct order, that’s what it perceived. And probably most readers’ brains had the same perception because, so far, the librarian is the only one who commented.

For years, memes have made the rounds on the net that say, in effect, if you can read the following, you’re a genius. The first and last letters of words are correct but everything in the middle is jumbled.

Here’s one example:
[Collected on the Internet, 2003]

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteres are at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a tatol mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.

And another that’s harder:

7H15 M3554G3 53RV35 7O PR0V3 H0W 0UR M1ND5 C4N D0 4M4Z1NG 7H1NG5! 1MPR3551V3 7H1NG5! 1N 7H3 B3G1NN1NG 17 WA5 H4RD BU7
N0W, 0N 7H15 LIN3 Y0UR M1ND 1S R34D1NG 17 4U70M471C4LLY W17H 0U7 3V3N 7H1NK1NG 4B0U7 17, B3 PROUD! 0NLY C3R741N P30PL3 C4N R3AD 7H15. PL3453 F0RW4RD 1F U C4N R34D 7H15.

Perhaps this is meant to reassure people who can’t spell or proofread that, hey, it’s okay because you’re super smart.

But if writers want to be perceived as professionals, we must hold ourselves to higher standards than internet folklore.

Another eagle-eyed reader caught a different goof in Dead Man’s Bluff, involving a 13-year-old character who was originally named “Leticia.”

My husband and I have a young friend named Jessica with special needs whom we’ve known since she was 13. She’s now 30 with ongoing medical problems that restrict her activity. Therefore, reading is her favorite pastime and she’s always excited when I give her a new book.

About six months ago, we were at lunch with her and her mom. Jessica leaned across the table and, in a conspiratorial whisper, said to me, “Wouldn’t it be cool if, in your next book, you had a character named Jessica?”  

How could I say no?

Dead Man’s Bluff was complete and close to launching. I knew Jessica would like her name used for the 13-year-old kickass character who’s trying to train a search dog. I went home, clicked on “find and replace”, and changed “Leticia” to “Jessica.”

Boom, done, easy peasy…or so I thought. 

However, I didn’t realize in one place I had misspelled “Leticia” as “Letitia.” That name didn’t get replaced because it was spelled differently. Oops.

The beauty of electronic publishing is the ability to make corrections and re-upload the file for an instant fix. If you have books on various platforms, the process takes longer but is still easy. With Print on Demand, thankfully, fixes are also simple. Can you imagine being stuck with a print run of 500 books with embarrassing errors?

I’ve heard of one author who makes typos into a game with her readers. She offers a bounty (I think, a free ebook) to readers who spot goofs. While that’s a smart way to turn lemons into lemonade, error-free should still be the goal.

Better to catch those files—I mean, flies—before the book is published.

Here are a few tricks to swat the sneaky little devils:

#1. Read the manuscript out loud. Every. Single. Word. This also helps with punctuation goofs, e.g. where a period should be a comma, etc.

#2. Listen to the manuscript using read-aloud programs like Natural Reader, Balabolka, or the Text to Speech function in Word and Office.

#3. Change the font for your whole manuscript and increase it a size or two. If you normally use Times New Roman at 12 pt., try Comic Sans at 14 or 16 pt. You fool your brain into thinking it’s not the same document. The more visual differences between your manuscript and your proof copy, the more you are apt to see oddities.

#4. Find a careful, meticulous reader, perhaps an English teacher or librarian. Offer to buy lunch or barter services in exchange for proofreading. Be sure to include their names in the acknowledgements page and give them a thank-you copy when the book is published.

#5. Consider hiring a professional copywriter and/or proofreader if you struggle with spelling and grammar. Yes, it’s expensive. That cost may motivate you to improve your own skills!


Speaking of expensive, here are some boo-boos that probably cost a few bucks to rectify:


TKZers: What was the worst typo you ever made? Feel free to go back as far as elementary school.

What’s your favorite typo?


Debbie Burke is reasonably sure she has now swatted all the files and flies in Dead Man’s Bluff. Please check it out at this link.


Beta Readers

I’m back from a summer hiatus and would like to say that I used the opportunity to jet set around the world in glamorous style but…well, you know…I did get a chance to visit the mountains a few times but we’ve had so much smoke from the recent wildfires that even that experience felt very much on-brand for 2020…

In the meantime, I have been writing and painting – but I’ve also been broadening my beta-reader opportunities, which got me thinking about the whole notion and value of beta-readers. In the past my beta-reader pool has pretty much been confined to friends and family, and, if I’m lucky, co-bloggers here at TKZ:)

By now most of my friends and family have read (and re-read!) many of my manuscripts, but only recently have I begun to look further afield to see if I can get critical input from potential readers. This interest was sparked by a UK historical fiction editorial group who began offering a beta-reader service – which (serendipitously for me) came just after I finished revisions to an old manuscript of mine. What I liked was that these beta-readers will be complete strangers with a love for historical fiction (so they can be as blunt and honest as they like – something I’m never totally sure friends/family are!) and they also must answer a series of very specific questions to help a writer hone in on issues with the book. I haven’t got feedback as yet so the jury is still out on the benefits of the program but I’m excited to broaden my beta-reader reach nonetheless.

So TKZers how do you focus on the beta reader question…Who do you get to be a beta-reader (?) and at what stage in your process do you get them involved? I usually have much earlier input but I’m thinking fresh eyes in this final, just about to submit stage, will be very helpful. What’s your experience been with beta-readers? Mine’s been as mixed as my experience with writer’s groups, some input has been terrific, some not so much…

Glad to be back and looking forward to your feedback on what has worked/hasn’t worked for you all when it comes to beta-readers!



Big Brother

By Mark Alpert

Back in 1984, when I was a newspaper reporter in Claremont, New Hampshire, I interviewed a crusty old New Englander nicknamed Red (because of his hair, I think, even though it had gone gray long before I met him). Red worked as a youth counselor for the town, offering sensible advice and support to the many troubled kids in the area. When the interview was over, Red looked me in the eye and said, “What about you? What are you doing to help our community?”

I didn’t know what to say. I was 23 years old, and I’d come to Claremont only a few months before, after finishing grad school (a master’s in creative writing, of all things). I was working long hours at the newspaper, but I wasn’t married, and I didn’t have a steady girlfriend. In other words, I had some free time on my hands, and I was learning that many small-town New Englanders feel a strong civic duty to put idle hands to work. The local Lions Club was already recruiting me, and some of the local churches too (even though I’m Jewish). And now Red sensed an opening: “Listen, you would make a great Big Brother, you know that? And I have the perfect kid for you. Eleven years old, smart and funny. He’s getting into some trouble at school, but he’s a good kid at heart. I can introduce you to him tomorrow. How about four o’clock?”

That’s how I met my Little Brother. For the next year or so, we got together on the weekends and many weekday afternoons as well. (My hours at the newspaper were irregular.) We did a lot of the stereotypical Big Brother/Little Brother things. We went to a video arcade and played 1980s-era video games (Donkey Kong, anyone?) until I ran out of quarters. We fished the Sugar River, which unfortunately wasn’t so sugary because of all the effluent spewed from Dorr Woolen Mills and the Coy Paper Mill. And because I was unduly influenced by all the advertisements I’d seen in Marvel comic books when I was a teenager, I bought a Daisy air rifle so we could go hunting.

I’m a New York City native, born in the homely borough of Queens, so what the hell did I know about hunting? Nothing, basically. But it was one of the classic activities I imagined Big Brothers and Little Brothers did in the woods of New Hampshire. I assumed it would offer us an opportunity for brotherly bonding and give me the chance to provide Valuable Life Lessons such as “Be patient and good things will happen” and “Working together toward a goal can be more fun and rewarding than fighting everybody at your school.”

Suffice it to say, those lessons didn’t stick, and most of the blame is on me. I was too young and stupid to be an upstanding role model. Plus, I left New Hampshire after a year-and-a-half to move on to a bigger newspaper in Alabama. That’s a typical career path for journalists, and although I tried to stay in touch with my Little Brother over the following years, I was busy with my own life. I could’ve done more for him, and that’s a big regret. But I don’t regret our crazy forays into the woods. They were fun.

And eventually I wrote about our hunting adventures. In my first novel, The Emperor of Alabama, the character of Philip is based on my Little Brother. I set the hunting scene in Alabama rather than New Hampshire, and the book’s narrator is an actual older brother to the hell-raising Philip, but everything else is pretty close to the truth. You can read it below and let me know what you think. (The earlier chapters of the novel are here, here, here, here, and here.)

The weather was good. After stopping at Wal-Mart to buy the pants and the BB’s for Philip’s rifle, we took the county road out to the Mountain. The hills in Butler County are not too impressive, but the tallest one has a pond near the top and a somewhat interesting trail leading up to it and so we called this one the Mountain. Philip and I went hunting there every month or so.

I parked my Civic at the trailhead and extracted my own weapon from the glove compartment, a black BB pistol that didn’t fire straight but sure looked menacing. Philip took command once we started up the trail. I let him walk ahead with the air rifle while I carried the other gear and my ineffective pistol.

“Quiet!” Philip gave me a fierce look over his shoulder. “You’re gonna scare away the squirrels!”

He stopped walking every hundred feet or so and stood perfectly still, listening to the wind blow through the pines. A mockingbird or a blue jay occasionally soared overhead and Philip would sight it with his air rifle but wouldn’t fire. Birds were too easy. He was getting too old to be shooting at birds. But I knew that if he didn’t see a squirrel pretty soon he’d start shooting at anything. He hated being bored and for that reason he’d never make a good hunter.

I wasn’t a good hunter either. I got distracted too easily. After a few minutes we passed a patch of swampy ground and I bent over to inspect the pink-and-white pitcher plants lolling in the mire. I pulled one up and turned it upside down to see what it had been eating lately. Two brown husks that used to be Japanese beetles fell out of the plant’s mouth. The beetles drown in the sticky fluid at the bottom of the pitcher, and then the same fluid dissolves and digests them. It’s a clever system.

Philip turned around and hissed at me for lagging behind. I dropped the plant and caught up with him.

I didn’t go hunting with Philip because I felt sorry for him, or because I wanted to help my mother by taking the kid off her hands for a few hours. After Philip was born, Ma’s behavior went back to normal, more or less. She took care of the baby while I went to classes at the community college and started working part-time at the Advertiser. A few years later, she bought a used car and found some housecleaning jobs, and I watched Philip for her whenever she was working. After he started school, though, she said she didn’t need my help anymore, and she stopped accepting the weekly “loans” I’d been giving her. Although she still had trouble paying her bills, she got incensed whenever I offered to tide her over. As I walked through the woods, I could already predict what Ma would do when Philip and I came home and she saw the new pants I’d bought for him: She’d swear at me and stuff a twenty-dollar bill into my pocket, even if that was all the money she made from cleaning that day.

No, I didn’t do it to help Ma or to please her. I went hunting with Philip because I enjoyed it. I enjoyed gazing through a break in the trees at the vivid green carpet to the south, broken only by the twisting Catfish River, which looked silver in the distance but was actually as brown as prune juice. I enjoyed hearing the barely audible cackling from the chicken farm on the other side of the Mountain, a place I’d never seen and never wanted to see, because seeing it would spoil the mystery. I enjoyed wondering which timber company owned the Mountain and whether they would ever consider selling any of the land and how much they would charge for it if they did. It would be a nice place to build a house. But most of all, I enjoyed being with my brother. I enjoyed having a purpose, which was to watch Philip hunt and be quiet when he told me to be quiet and make sure he didn’t do anything too stupid.

Presently, the distinctive shriek of an American gray squirrel sounded from a stand of pines up ahead. Philip froze just long enough to locate the noise. Then he fired a shot into the upper branches.

He missed. The squirrel scrambled down the tree trunk.

“You little fucker!” Philip loaded another BB into the barrel of his air rifle and furiously pumped the stock.

The squirrel raced across a bed of pine needles toward another tree trunk. I fired my BB pistol, and the arcing shot actually came close enough to scare him. He made a 90-degree turn and was leaping over a rock when Philip’s second shot caught him in the hind leg.

It was a hell of a shot. The squirrel’s rear end jerked sideways in midair. He crashed into the pine needles and slid half a yard before he regained his footing and dove out of sight beneath a pile of rocks.

We rushed over there, Philip panting and flushed and nearly hysterical with excitement, and me scanning the ground just as carefully, my pistol already reloaded.

Philip pointed at the rock pile. “He’s in there! Start picking up those rocks!”

I picked up the lighter rocks and threw them to the side. Then I dug my fingers into the clay around the heavier rocks and pried them loose. Philip stood there with his rifle, ready to fire if the squirrel made a run for it. I lifted a flat rock that had a long smear of blood on it, and as I was pointing this out to Philip the squirrel erupted from the rock pile and bolted hell-for-leather toward the nearest pine tree.

Philip hit him again as he clambered up the trunk, another good shot. The squirrel stumbled but managed to hang on to the bark and climb to the lowest limb. I expected him to run down the limb and jump into the branches of the neighboring tree, but instead of running he just sat there in the crotch between the trunk and tree limb. With the wounds he had, he was as good as dead anyway.

Philip had a clear shot. The BB plunged into the squirrel like a pin into a pincushion. The animal didn’t even blink. Philip shot him one more time and the squirrel lost his grip on the branch and fell to the ground.

Philip was in a splendid mood for the rest of the day. He decided that he wanted to show off the squirrel to his friends before skinning and eating it, so he put the body in a plastic sandwich bag and we hiked back to the car. On the drive back to my mother’s house, Philip kept turning the bag over, studying the carcass with immense pride. But I avoided looking at the thing. It bothered me that the squirrel hadn’t run at the end. As if he’d sensed the basic unfairness of it all.

Philip’s face was still red with pleasure. “Did you see how he jumped when I got him the first time? He was running like a son-of-a-bitch. And then, BAM!”

“It was a good shot,” I allowed.

“And I ain’t even in practice. Ma hasn’t let me done any target practice for almost a month.”

“Why not?”

“Aw, it was stupid. I was down by the old cemetery, aiming at some blue jays, and I shot out someone’s porch light. It was an accident.”

I shook my head. This wasn’t the first time Philip had been careless. “I’ve told you before, you can’t go shooting near houses.”

“It ain’t my fault! That trailer’s at the end of the road, in the middle of the woods. I didn’t even know I was near it.”

“Come on…”

“I’m telling the truth! There’s nothing else up there.”

“So how did Ma find out about it?”

Philip frowned. “Just my luck, there was a sheriff’s car parked outside the trailer. One of the deputies saw me and told me to get in the car. Then he drove me home.”

Great, I thought. Philip was already getting in trouble with the law, and he wasn’t even a teenager yet. “So what happened then?”

“Well, Ma wasn’t home but Brad was there. And you know how he is.” Brad was my mother’s current boyfriend, a relatively decent guy who took shit from no one. “He started yelling at the deputy, telling him to get the hell off the property. Then the deputy said he was gonna issue a citation because of the junk cars in our yard. And then Ma finally came home and told the deputy to fuck off.”

“Oh, Jesus.”

“It was pretty funny, actually. Ma said, ‘Listen, you dumb fuck, I know the sheriff, and he’d have a heart attack if he knew you were fucking with me.’ And the deputy was so dumb, he believed her.” Philip turned his attention back to the sandwich bag and pinched the carcass inside. “This squirrel’s got a tough hide. Look at the color of his guts. I bet he just finished eating something.”

I took my eyes off the road for a moment and looked at Philip. I felt a brotherly obligation to try to talk some sense into him. “Ma says you’ve been getting into trouble in school too.”

“I don’t cause no trouble. The other kids started it. I don’t mess with nobody unless they mess with me first.”

“It doesn’t matter who…”

“I’ll tell you what happened. One of the kids in my class started razzing me about Ma and Brad. So I said, ‘Well, at least my mother ain’t a fucking skank, which is more than I can say for yours.’ Then he pushed me, so I said, ‘Now you’ve done it, now you’ve made me mad,’ and before he could do anything else, I dropped him. Then I said to his friends, ‘If any of you want the same thing he got, just step right up, ’cause I’m in a fighting mood.’ And they all ran away like scared little pussies.”

I didn’t believe a word of it. “You know, they’re gonna throw you out of school if you keep fighting like that.”

“No, they ain’t. They’re gonna put me in Special Ed next year.”


“Yeah, the teacher said I have a learning disability. So now I’m gonna have to sit in a classroom full of nimrods.”

“Shit.” I recognized what was going on, because the same thing happened to every kid in Butler County who proved too difficult for the schools to handle. The teachers shunted the problem kids to Special Education, where they learned absolutely nothing and eventually quit out of boredom. It was a necessary evil in a county that couldn’t even afford to heat its schools in the winter, much less pay for teacher aides or school psychologists. But it infuriated me that Philip had been designated as one of the castoffs. “This is bullshit. You don’t have a learning disability.”

“That’s what Ma told ’em. But they said we didn’t have a choice. It was either Special Ed or nothing.”

“Goddamn it! They can’t do this.”

“I don’t care. I’m sick of school anyway. If they try to put me with the nimrods, I’ll just bust out of there. I’ll go to your place and live with you.”

“You can’t live with me, Philip. What would you do in my apartment all day?”

“Lots of things. I could help you write your newspaper stories. I’d give you the ideas and you’d give me part of your salary. You could write a story about my school and how fucked up the teachers are.”

“Look, you need to…”

“I could help you right now. I read the newspapers that Ma gets. It doesn’t look that hard.”

“Listen to me. You’re never gonna get anywhere in life if you quit school.”

“I bet I could write better stories than you. You write about boring stuff.”

I sighed. “Well, I’m sorry, but a lot of things in life are boring. When you have a job, you have to do what they tell you to do. They tell me to write about the governor, so I write about the governor.”

“Brad says the governor used to own that trailer I shot at. He says the governor used to go there to fuck his girlfriend.”

Philip stated this very matter-of-factly, as if this was something that everyone knew. I slowed the car and stared at him. “What?”

“He doesn’t go there anymore. The sheriff owns the trailer now. Brad told me that’s why the deputy was there.”

“How would Brad know something like that?”

“Brad knows a lot of things. He used to be an informer for the state troopers.”

This was strictly impossible. Brad hated cops. “Well, it’s the first I’ve heard of it.”

“You see, I’m helping you already. You owe me part of your salary. Watch out, you’re gonna miss the turnoff.”

I hit the brakes and the Civic skidded a few yards. Then I drove down the dirt road to my mother’s house.

Philip jumped out of the car as soon as we stopped. My mother stood in the doorway next to the junk piles, looking pissed. She wore denim shorts and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, which was her usual outfit when she was cleaning houses. She pointed at the sandwich bag in Philip’s hand. “You ain’t bringing that mess into the house.”

“I’m just gonna put it in the freezer,” Philip said.

“The shit you are! You’re either gonna bury that thing or throw it in the drum.”

“It ain’t gonna hurt nothing in the freezer!”

My mother turned to me. “Jack, how the hell could you let him bring that mess home?”

Wearily, I stepped out of the car. “It’s good to see you too, Ma.”

“Look, it don’t smell at all,” Philip said, waving the sandwich bag in my mother’s face. “Here, smell it. It don’t smell at all.”

“Get that fucking thing outta here!” my mother screamed, whacking the bag out of Philip’s hand. The squirrel carcass flew out of the bag and landed in a mud puddle a few feet away.

“Now look what you did!” Philip shouted.

“Get the shovel and bury that thing, Philip!” My mother got prettier when she was angry. Her face took on color and some of the lines disappeared and her sad yellow eyes seemed to jump out at you, like the eyes of the girls still hanging out at the Jubilee at three in the morning. You would’ve never guessed that she was pushing 50. She looked 35, 40 at the most.

“Fuck it! You can bury it yourself!” Philip walked right past my mother and into the house, slamming the door behind him.

My mother winced as the door slammed. Then her face relaxed to its normal condition, a pale tired look. “I don’t believe this. I got a dead squirrel in the middle of my yard.”

“Don’t worry, Ma,” I said. “One of the dogs will eat it.”

She stared at the rusted metal drum. The trash inside it was still smoldering. “I don’t know what to do with that boy. I really don’t. He gets worse every day.”

She was looking for sympathy. She wanted me to agree that Philip was incorrigible, that no power on earth could control him, that it wasn’t her fault. And I did sympathize with her, in a limited way. She wasn’t really equipped for motherhood. She got overwhelmed too easily. “Philip told me what happened in school. How they want to put him in Special Ed.”

My mother dug into the back pocket of her shorts and pulled out a crumpled pack of Camels. “It’s not like I didn’t warn him. I told that boy a hundred times, stop messing around in school.” She stuck a cigarette between her lips and started searching her other pockets for a matchbook. “But he didn’t listen. He never listens.”

“You gotta do something about this, Ma. Talk to someone on the school board.”

“Don’t you think I tried? I went to the chairman’s house and gave him hell. Told him exactly what I thought about his goddamn school district.” She finally found the matches and lit her cigarette. “Didn’t do a bit of good.”

I raised my hand to my forehead. The hangover ache was returning. “What about that private school I told you about last month? Did you call ’em?”

“Greenville Academy? Yeah, I called ’em. They don’t give financial aid unless your daddy’s a veteran. Fucking cheap bastards.”

“Well, how much is the tuition?”

“Five thousand dollars a year. Can you believe it? The pencils over there must be made of solid gold.” She blew a stream of smoke out of the corner of her mouth. “No, we’re just gonna have to make the best of it. Maybe if Philip learns to behave himself, they’ll put him back in the regular classes.”

I shook my head. This was wrong, seriously wrong. I saw nothing but disaster for Philip if we let this happen to him. It was all too easy to imagine him in the county jail a few years from now. We had to do something. “Go ahead and enroll him at Greenville Academy. I’ll figure out how to get the money.”

My mother looked askance. “You? You’re gonna pay for it?”

That was the moment when I made my decision. For the whole day I’d avoided thinking about Fowler’s job offer, but now I knew what I had to do. I wasn’t going to let them toss Philip into the fire. “Don’t worry, I can afford it.”

“What the hell are you talking about? You can barely make your car payments. You gonna rob a bank or something?”

I felt a grim satisfaction. For once I was going to make my mother eat her words. “I got a chance to start a new job. A good job, pays fifty thousand a year. That’ll be more than enough to cover Philip’s tuition.”

My mother took the cigarette out of her mouth and squinted at me. “Who are you gonna be working for?”

“Governor Fowler wants me to be his assistant press secretary. For his reelection campaign.”

She didn’t say anything at first. She just stared at me as if I were crazy. It got so quiet that I could hear the cars on the county road a quarter-mile away.

“You ain’t gonna work for him,” she finally said, calmly and firmly.

“Why not?”

“You can work anywhere else you want, but you ain’t gonna work for that man.”

“What is it? You don’t like his politics?”

“No, I don’t like his politics. I don’t like it at all.”

I understood her reaction. In fact, I’d felt the same way myself. But for Philip’s sake, I needed to quash those feelings now. “That’s ridiculous,” I said. “You ain’t even registered to vote.”

My mother threw her cigarette to the ground and pointed her finger at me. “You can make fun of me all you want, Jack. I may not have gone to college and I may not be as smart as your friends at the newspaper. But I know about that man. And I know what your daddy thought about him too. If your daddy were alive right now, he’d kick you right in the ass. He’d kick your ass so hard, you wouldn’t be able to sit for a week.”

“I don’t think so, Ma.”

“You don’t think so? Well, I know so. I know what that man did to your daddy.”

“Come on, this is…”

“That man put hatred in your daddy’s heart. And that’s what killed him. It ate him up inside and then it killed him.”

“For Christ’s sake, it was cancer. The governor had nothing to do with it.”

“I was there, Jack! I saw what happened! That man is nothing but a murderer! And if you work for him, you’ll be a murderer too!”

I hadn’t seen my mother get this worked up in a long time. Her face had turned bright pink and her chest was heaving. There was a wildness in her blood that rose to the surface at times like these, a primeval fury that tightened the muscles in her neck and made her veins pulse like live wires. It was something old, something that had been in our family’s blood since God knows when. And there was some of it in me, too. I could feel it seeping through my skin like a poisonous tide. “Are you through yet?”

She took a deep breath but kept her eyes fixed on me. “Yeah, I’m through.”

“You said if daddy were alive right now, he’d kick my ass. But that’s wrong. He wouldn’t have the time, because he’d be too busy kicking the hell out of you.” I pointed at the wreck of a house behind her. “He’d kick your ass for keeping your house the way you keep it and for raising Philip the way you raise him and for living out here like trash and not even caring anymore. You think that’s what daddy would’ve wanted? For Philip to drop out of school and live like trash his whole life?”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I’d gone too far. I thought for sure that Ma would spring on me like a panther. But she just stared at me again as if I were crazy. “Get out of here, Jack,” she said quietly. “Just get the hell out of here.”

I headed to my car and opened the door, but before I ducked inside I turned back to my mother. “I’m sending the money to Greenville Academy whether you like it or not. All you have to do is enroll him.”

Then I got in the car and slammed the door and peeled down the dirt driveway.