Gird Thy Loins

This writing business was a significant learning curve for me, and I suspect, for others as well. Few authors stepped into it fully capable and informed on every aspect of our chosen careers. I’m fear you’ll see some letdowns as you gain experience, but be prepared.

There were great successes at the outset when I published my first newspaper column in 1988, but before that I suffered a list of minor and major disappointments that sometimes almost made me throw my hands in the air and give up.

I wish I hadn’t thrown away a box full of decades-old rejection slips and letters back around 2000, when I was at a low point in my sputtering career as a novelist. I was ready to chuck it all one day, soon after my newspaper column was on the brink of national syndication through King Features, who discovered that I was self-syndicated in more than 50 papers in Texas and Oklahoma. However, that new beast called the Internet sucked the life out of newspaper publishing, and the first thing managers did was drop columnists.

So from that high point, I went to three papers where the columns remain to this day.

Big Disappointment Number 1

Instead of being the “Outdoor Dave Barry,” as a King Features agent called me, I was almost back to square one when they called to say thanks, but no thanks now, and good luck. Feeling sorry for myself, I opened that box of rejection slips and read them one by one.

Many were from Readers Digest in the late 1960s Another was a single sentence typed in 1969 under Playboy letterhead to a 16 year-old kid, “Thank you for your submission, but it does not meet our needs at this time.” Encouraged that there was a coffee stain on one of the submissions (somebody read it, huzzah!), I continued pelting them with submissions through the next few years, there were many more from that magazine.

Other rejection slips came from outdoor periodicals, national magazines, large daily newspapers, and finally, book publishers. At first I considered those polite but milquetoast rejections as a form of encouragement (somebody was actually reading my efforts), but sitting in the hot attic on that low-point day, they mocked my attempts to be published.

When the columnist market collapsed and my papers dropped off at an alarming rate, I had to start writing how-to “hook and bullet” articles for outdoor magazines in order to keep my name out there. Those photo/copy packages paid well, but they took a tremendous amount of time and research to produce, so I looked around to find a bigger brick to throw.

It had been right there in front of me for years. I had to write a novel.

In the late 1970s, I hammered on a Smith Corona portable typewriter, then migrated to the new technology of a 1980s-era IBM Selectric nestled on a makeshift desk in the second tiny bedroom/library/office of my 900-square foot frame house. There I started half a dozen novels that fizzled out by page 40. They simply wouldn’t hold even my interest, let alone others.

One is still in a drawer. Titled Smoke and Ash, it’s an unreadable apocalyptic draft and I only keep it in a file to occasionally torture myself and remember how it was.

I experimented with humor, science fiction, and short stories. My frustration was that I constantly needed to go back and correct typos, or insert ideas and dialogue that came to me later.

My soul was freed when I bought a 286 computer. It didn’t take long, but I figured out how to write on a Sperrylink word program and the words flowed.

Big Disappointment Number 2

Then one day I began The Rock Hole and when it was finally finished years later, I hit the save key one final time, only to find that the dinosaur word program’s 5½ inch floppy disk wouldn’t hold so much information and overwrites. It malfunctioned and the entire work disappeared in a technological burp.

I had to re-write the entire manuscript from memory, but I like to think it was better than the original. With document saved this time on a Zip drive, I submitted that new manuscript to a number of publishers. Most said thanks, but no thanks, but a Texas university press was interested in the novel, and here’s where I screwed up.

Big Disappointment Number 3

Remember, I was green as grass, and hadn’t even spoke to more than two or three writers by then, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when the editor at that time communicated with me via old school letters at first, suggesting edits and offering encouragement. I did some more editing, sent it, and she asked for the manuscript.

I printed and mailed her the 140,000 word manuscript of what was then titled Center Springs, Texas, and waited. Yeah, I know it was way too long…now. The first hundred pages came back from a copy editor, with a list of problems. That individual picked the manuscript apart, much like a high school English teacher, and it looked as if she’d been in the process of turning into a werewolf at the same time she read it. The pages bled red ink, scalding comments, and I swear there were claw marks across some of them.

That individual wasn’t good at stroking writers. It seems she hated such repeated words as old, real, porch, and just, that I’d used over and over. I recall a number of suggestions and ways to tightened the work, and so I threw those pages on still another makeshift desk and gave up.

I gave up on an editor at that university press who was interested in publishing that work long before it was picked up in 2010 under a different name by Poisoned Pen Press. In essence, I didn’t know they were on the verge of accepting it for publication. I still slap my head in my sleep, when dreams arise and I see those communications from them in the trash.

Looking back, though, I guess it was a good thing I didn’t go with the university press, because that would have likely been a one-book deal. Instead, Poisoned Pen offered me a series that continues to this day.

Big Disappointment Number 4

That wasn’t the end of letdowns for me, though. Not by a long shot. A production company that had finished filming Winter’s Bone liked The Rock Hole, and called me direct to offer a movie deal!

However, my starter agent (which I fired not long after that offer) started playing games with the company and they quickly threw up their hands and backed away from the project.

But I had the Red River series with Poisoned Pen, and found an excellent agent who was experienced in the publishing world. Together, we worked on a second series that was picked up by Kensington. Frustrations faded to memories and I was a busy guy for a while, and still am, but I wanted to do something different.

Through friends who are bestselling authors, I heard about an up and coming eBook publisher that was looking for something different. They arranged for a face to face meeting at a conference in Colorado. I drove up, met the publisher, and we went out to dinner.

Big Disappointment Number…oh, what the hell.

The next day he agreed to publish something completely different for me, a weird western that he loved. We shook on it, with the promise from him to contact my agent and hammer out a contract.

Two days later, he crawfished on the deal with a lame excuse I won’t write here, and refused to take calls or emails. I was raised by people who survived the Great Depression, World War II, and fickle weather, and grew up with the absolute understanding that a handshake was a legal bond, a man’s word.

Apparently, he didn’t see it that way, and that series evaporated into the wind, but it didn’t stop me. Why? Because I refuse to give up and give in to setbacks.

Now, get back on that horse and ride.

If you continue on the path to being an author, you’re likely to ride that rollercoaster of highs and lows, it’s simply part of the business. But remember, never let ‘em show you’re wounded, and never, ever, give up.

Good luck and happy typing.

Reader Friday: Overcoming Your Greatest Obstacle

Reader Friday: Books to help you overcome your greatest obstacle

by Dale Ivan Smith

Writers face many obstacles—time, the day job, family responsibilities, health challenges, etc. Then there are publishing challenges, be it the traditional path, small press, or self-publishing.

However, in my experience, the greatest obstacle we face as writers is ourselves. Whether you consider writer’s block real, there are mindset issues such as managing expectations, procrastination, fear of failure, and many others. Getting out of our own way can make all the difference in our own writing.

Fortunately, there are books to help you get past your greatest obstacle. This retired librarian still likes to provide multiple resources, so here are three:

 The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield spent decades struggling to write, and then toiled trying to break-in as a screenwriter, finally succeeding when he co-wrote the story for the 1986 film, King Kong Lives, the sequel to the 1976 reboot of the original. Unfortunately, King Kong Lives bombed at the box office. Pressfield came to recognize that the biggest obstacle to our succeeding as writers is what he names Resistance, that part of ourselves which holds us back from engaging in a new endeavor that might change our lives, especially creative endeavors like writing. Each brief chapter provides an insight patterned after Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Pressfield breaks the book into three parts: Defining Resistance, Combating Resistance, and getting Beyond Resistance.

The Mental Game of Writing, by James Scott Bell. The Killzone’s very own James Scott Bell’s provides a tool chest of tips and strategies to help you with your mindset as a writer. He covers the gambit from the importance of deciding to become a writer and defining success for yourself, to creativity, production, joy, to not comparing yourself to others, dealing with stress, being inspired, and many more. Jim packed a terrific amount of very practical advice into this book. It’s a resource you can dip into repeatedly after you’ve read it, to look for help in any area that is an inner obstacle for you. Reading this book was like having Jim as a writing mentor, offering suggestions and tips to improve your mental game.

 Breakthrough, by J. Dharma Kelleher. Thriller writer Kelleher looks at creative self-doubt (akin to Pressfield’s “Resistance”) and how it affects our writing. Right off the bat, she provides tools to get past it: meditation, affirmations, and the power of re-framing how you look at an issue you’ve encountered in your writing or publishing. She discusses the importance of your health, understanding your own creative process, focusing on the work rather than the results, dealing with feedback, understanding the “delusion” of paying attention to reviews, and much more. She provides helpful advice, tips, and an extensive list of additional resources.


Now it’s your turn. Do you believe we writers are our own greatest obstacle to our own writing? What books or resources have helped you get out of your own way as a writer?



Handles, monikers, labels, tags, aliases, call signs, short-fors, or sobriquets—no matter what you call nicknames, there’s no doubting the popularity of people renaming people. Probably no culture ever existed that didn’t apply nicknames to friends and to foes. Certainly, that’s the case in today’s western world.

In books, we have unforgettable character nicknames like Tiny Tim and Scout. In movies, there’s Sundance Kid and the Karate Kid. In sports, there’s The Great One, The GOAT, and The Intimidator. And in politics—well, it’s full of nicknames—The Gipper, The Iron Lady, Slick Willie, Dubya, and on and on…

I grew up in a small town. Pretty much every youth had a nickname. Some of the boys were Girch, Squid, Roach, Sally (because he, for all-the-world, looked like a salamander), Charlie Tuna, and Smerchook. The girls? I remember Casey, Jimmy, Butchie, and one with the rather unflattering nickname of Skinhound.

The police world was another nickfest. I worked with Deano, Jake, Bootsie, Squigmeyer (also shortened to Squiggy), Rosco, Basil, The Wheel, Fast Eddie, Peacher, Speedy, and Percy. Those were male officers. Females were Oscar (nicknamed after a spectacular performance), Ike, Chiclets, Blow (real name Brenda Jobins), and my long-time detective partner Harry. Harry was a large lady, with large hair, and an even larger personality. She was nicknamed “Harry” after the Sasquatch/Bigfoot in the movie Harry and the Hendersons.

As a young cop in Canada’s national police force, the RCMP, I was posted from the academy to an isolated First Nations reserve. I swear they all had nicknames as well as their unpronounceable (to me) Indian or indigenous names. Weedy, Torchy, Lucky, Jam, Ritzie, Pat Squash, Hattie, and The Old Trout. I loved my time with these wonderful folks.

Back to policing. For fourteen years, I served on the Emergency Response Team (ERT or SWAT) that was overtop of regular policing duties. Every ERT member had a nickname, more for functionality than fun. These were call signs, much like the fighter pilot fraternity has. Call signs are fast and efficient ways to remember a name and communicate clearly in the heat of the moment. Call signs are unique and unforgettable. There is no mistaking who’s calling who.

Our ERT call signs were Mother, Sonny, Jimbo, Tubbs, Bude, Deet, Cro, and our leader—Boss Hogg. Me? My call sign was Alfred. I got it from that chameleon-like character on every cover of Mad Magazine—Alfred E. Neuman. (There’s a story behind this.) And Cro, by the way, looked like Cro-Magnon Man. Cro’s brow protruded so far and his nose was so flat that he couldn’t wear sunglasses.

Call signs are earned, usually from some outstanding event. They’re peer-given and not chosen by the bearer. You never give yourself a call sign. If you do, it’ll be replaced with one you really don’t like.

A month or so ago, I wrote a Kill Zone post titled Topping Top Gun Maverick. If you’ve seen the show, you’ll remember the call signs. Maverik, for Tom Cruise which carried over from the first Top Gun released in 1984. Goose, who was Maverick’s navigator and was killed in an aerial bailout. Rooster, who is Goose’s son and now Maverick’s protégé. Iceman, played by Val Kilmer. Hammer, who is trying to fire Maverick. Cyclone, who is also trying to fire Maverick. Warlock, who keeps emotions in line. And the rest of the cast—Hangman, Phoenix, Bob, Coyote, and Fan Boy.

I went down a rabbit hole and found these real fighter pilot call signs. In alphabetical order, here are the real deals and where the call signs come from:

Agony — Last name Payne

ALF — Annoying Little F**k

Alphabet — Pilot’s real name was Varsonofy Krestodovdvizhensky

Apollo — Last name Creed

Bambi — Pilot hit a pregnant deer on the runway with his nosegear in takeoff

Beagle — Pilot kept bouncing around on training landings

Berlin — Pilot turned wrong way on taxi strip and ran into a wall

Blaze — Caught himself on fire in the mess kitchen

Burbank — Pilot self-named as Hollywood and was peer-renamed

Caveman — Incredible tolerance to cold weather in survival training

Coma — Very slow talking pilot with Southern drawl

Captain — Pilot’s real name was James Kirk

Chocks — F-16 driver who began taxying before wheel chocks were removed

COOTS — Constantly Over-emphasizes Own Tactical Significance

Cypher — Broke through radio silence on a training flight, alerting the enemy

Dice — Pilot who took unnecessary chances

Dingle — Last name Berry

Duck — Pilot who took awhile learning evasive maneuvering (Sitting Duck)

Elvis — Hard to find guy, many reported sightings, but nothing concrete

Exxon — Pilot hurried through preflight checklist and missed his refueling

Fan Song — Pilot with big ears like a Fan Song fire-tracking radar antenna

Flowmax — Could never make it through a flight without using urinary relief tube

Gear Down — Forgot something on landing

Ghost — Last name Casper

Glory — Last name Hole

Gucci — Pilot who got 9-G drunk and vomited in a woman’s Gucci purse

Grumpy — Short pilot who was not a morning person

Hannibal — As in Lecter, and his smell of cauterized human flesh

Hurricane — Female F-18 Super Hornet driver named Katrina

Headless — Last name Horstman

Hyde — Pilot had split personality; most liked his Hyde side better than Jeckyl

Hi-Ho — Last name Silva

Inch — Dutch pilot measuring 5’ 4” tall

Intake — Pilot had the largest nose anyone in the squadron had ever seen

IRIS — “I Require Intense Supervision”

Jugs — First female Top Gun pilot graduating from Miramar

Kanga — Last name Rew

Krod — (Spell it backwards)

Krunch — Landing gear sound when hitting hard and short of runway

Legend — Trainee who failed an exam no one had ever failed

Lick — Last name MaWhinney

Link — Soviet-born pilot with mono brow, flat forehead, large knuckles

Me-So — Last name Horn

Marx — Pilot’s first name was Karl, and he hated communists

Magellan — Pilot had a poor sense of direction, not in line with any compass

NAG — First female Marine Corps F/A 18 WSO (Not A Guy)

NotSo — Last name Bright

Omelet — Dutch pilot call-signed “Uitsmijter” – English translation “Grilled Egg”

OhMy — Last name Gaud

PE — Pilot accidently Prematurely Ejected while on the runway

Pyro — Pilot accidently discharged evasive flares and set airfield on fire

Plan B — Pilot perpetually unlucky with the bar ladies

PopTop — Pilot who accidently jettisoned not one, but two canopies

Razor — Pilot who made the sharpest turns and maneuvers ever seen

Rebound — Pilot in so many relationships with the same woman

ROTOR — Ran Off The Only Runway

Rushmore — Pilot fined for climbing Mt. Rushmore and selfying on Lincoln’s beard

SLAW — Shops Like A Woman

Salad — First name Cesar

Salesman — Pilot who had a hard time closing deals with women

SALSA — Student Aviator Lacking Situational Awareness

T-Bone — Pilot who dropped a practice bomb straight through a cow

TBAR — That Boy Ain’t Right

Teflon — Pilot with smooth moves in the air and on the ground

Tumble Weed — Tall, vegan pilot called “Weed” who fainted and went down hard

Vapor — An F-16 Viper driver who landed with less than 10 pounds of fuel left

Vodka — Last name Smirnoff

WiFi — Pilot whose Wife Financed his new Porsche

Werewolf — Hairy pilot always grounded during full moon exercises, no exceptions

Yoda — A short Irish pilot who spoke his words backwards

Zulu — Trainee who always got time calcs wrong in flight school

Zen — A real F-15 Eagle driver more accurate without his computer gunsight system


Kill Zoners — Nicknames? Do you use them in characterization? How important are nicknames in a story? And do you have a personal nickname you’d like to share?


Terry Odell

Book beginnings are tough, as evidenced by the interest in The Kill Zone’s First Page Critiques. A blog post I’d read recently talked about having about 250 words to ‘hook’ a reader. That’s not even a full page.

And, it seems, no matter how many books we’ve written, how many times we’ve stared at that cursor on the screen under the words “Chapter One”, it doesn’t get easier.

I know this is a frequent topic her at the Zone, but it hit home (again) as both myself and my critique partner were starting new projects. And, we both were falling into the same old quicksand. She’s more of a planner than I am, and she was starting a new series, so her head was filled with ideas, many of which would fall into the “tell us this later” category. Her first chapter was full of them.

I was going back to my Mapleton Mystery series, so I know most of my main characters. But there were things from the last book that readers might need to know, threads that were left open. Not dangling, not hanging onto cliffs, just springboards to explore in a future book. If you’re interested, I posted an article about endings on my personal blog Monday.

Even “knowing the rules”, when I shared my first draft of page 1 of a new book, a draft I’d set aside to deal with final edits and formatting of Cruising Undercover, an author friend pointed out that my first paragraph was … exposition. In my mind, there was a conflict there, a problem, but there I went, letting my protagonist think about it.

Open with Dialogue. Dialogue is Action.

How many times have I “heard” James Scott Bell and others here pound that advice into us? More than I can count, yet, even knowing this, understanding this, I was so eager to describe the problem so that’s what I did.

This was my opening draft paragraph:

Gordon Hepler held his breath as Angie, his wife, stepped into the house he’d hoped she’d approve of. Not that he didn’t love her—to the moon and back—but her tiny apartment above the Daily Bread diner she ran was … tiny. She’d agreed to consider moving, but so far, she’d found fault with every house they’d looked at. This one—fingers crossed—would meet her criteria. Except for one minor wrinkle, it was perfect.

There was a line of dialogue immediately after this paragraph, but no, I hadn’t opened with it, not to mention loading the paragraph with back story.

Back to that blog post. The author suggested 7 points that should hook readers, and that authors should strive for 4 of them in their first 250 words. Rather than repeat what the contributors to TKZ say in their First Page Critiques, I’m going to open the floor to discussion. Do you agree with these 7 hooks?

  1. Plunge into the action
  2. Communicate a theme
  3. Raise a question that needs answering
  4. Hook the reader’s emotions
  5. Communicate the stakes
  6. Establish tone/voice
  7. Introduce the main character (if possible, by name)

Do you think squeezing 4 of them into half a page is effective? Obviously several can be combined (avoid the laundry list!), but 250 words isn’t much real estate to deal with.

And if you want to read the full article, which contains examples, it’s here.

Floor’s yours.

Cruising Undercover by Terry OdellNow Available for Pre-Order: Cruising Undercover.

Not accepting the assignment could cost him his job. Accepting it could cost him his life.

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

Reading Is a Luxury

Photo credit: emmanuel ikwuegbu –

By Debbie Burke



In the US, 130 million adults read below sixth grade level.


Me, too.

But, according to the US Department of Education, 54% of people ages 16-74 fall into that category.

Most writers take reading for granted, as automatic and effortless as breathing.

I certainly did…until I couldn’t.

Recently I had cataract surgeries in both eyes, three weeks apart. Those three weeks of limbo slapped me in the face with the realization how much I depended on reading just to get through the day.

Because of myopia, I’ve worn glasses since sixth grade. Over time, my nearsightedness worsened to the point where I couldn’t even see the big E on the eye chart.

True story: without glasses, I once mistook a dark brown house for a UPS truck.

For the past couple of years, increasingly strong prescriptions could no longer fix the problem. Near or far, my world was blurry.

Hence, cataract surgery was the only option.

Ten minutes under the scalpel implanted a new lens that almost instantly corrected vision in the left eye to 20-20.

An absolute miracle!

But my right eye was still 20-800. Objects were clear up to about four inches away, then faded in fog.

My wonderful 20-20 left eye could see hundreds of feet away but not up close.

I was cockeyed. (Some people say that’s nothing new!)

The optician tried popping out the left lens in my glasses but that turned out to be as disorienting as five shots of tequila.

For computer work and reading, I was non-operational.

After surgery, physical restrictions included no bending over, lifting, or strenuous activity.

No vacuuming? No problem!

But that also halted my regular exercises like gardening, Zumba, and air boxing. Thankfully, walking was okay.

That made me realize reading and/or writing normally occupied 12-14 hours of each day. How could I get any work done?

There are free-standing magnifiers for computer screens but $100+ was too much of an investment for three weeks’ of use. Dollar Store readers helped a bit but soon caused eyestrain.

Photo credit: lilartsy – pexels

A pirate patch and magnifying glass worked marginally but awkwardly.

This would have been the perfect opportunity to try audiobooks…except I couldn’t read how to download them.

From across the room, I could clearly see the spines of books on my TBR pile but I couldn’t read the insides.

Driving was allowed but, when I took the car for service, I couldn’t read the repair list and invoice. The bank’s ATM screen was a blur. So were price stickers on supermarket shelves—probably just as well not to see how much they’d gone up since the week before!

The list goes on and on: product labels, instructions, on/off switches for appliances, texts on the phone, cable connections like audio, video, auxiliary.

I couldn’t even read the directions on the various bottles of eyedrops I had to use multiple times each day.

Most every task in life required reading.

How does someone who can’t read or reads at a low level navigate through today’s world?

According to the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy:

To read a driver’s license manual, you need to have a sixth-grade reading level. To hold a job as a cook: seventh-grade level. Directions on an aspirin bottle: eighth-grade level. Understanding frozen TV dinner instructions or to get a job as a mechanic or supply clerk: ninth-grade level. Newspapers: high school level. Apartment lease: college.

Let’s not even talk about filling out a tax return.

The Foundation’s 2021 report reveals staggering statistics that cause economic, social, and health deficits.

The U.S. could be losing up to $2.2 trillion—or 10% of GDP—in economic growth due to low adult literacy rates.

  • The existing gap in digital literacy skills could cause 76% of Black individuals and 62% of Hispanic individuals to be shut out or under-prepared for 86% of jobs in the U.S. by 2045.
  • Low-literate adults are four times more likely than others to report low levels of health, requiring hospitalization and using emergency services at significantly higher rates.


Per the Governors’ Early Literacy Foundation:

Illiteracy and crime are connected. The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure. Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.”

This recent experience made me appreciate that reading is a luxury not everyone has access to. People who can’t read are doomed to a life of struggle and frustration.

Processed By  ImageMagick,


Remember Henry Bemis from The Twilight Zone? He found himself in a post-apocalyptic world where he rejoiced in the newfound luxury of unlimited reading…until his glasses broke.

Unlike poor Henry, my inability to read only lasted three weeks and ended with a miracle of new vision.



My world no longer looks like an Impressionist painting. I can see individual leaves on trees, blades of grass, street signs (oh, that’s where I was supposed to turn).

The gift of improved sight is incredible.

But the gift of being able to read again runs a close second.



Thanks to Kay DiBianca who introduced me to the worthy nonprofit Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.


TKZers: How would your life change if you couldn’t read? What is your most important reason for reading?


Cover image by Brian Hoffman



Receive a FREE short story, The Job Interview, when you join my reader’s group at

Adventures in Reversion – Getting the Rights Back

Reversion, noun. the act of turning something the reverse way.


I recently received the rights back to my first novel, The Watch on the Fencepost. Since many writers either have gone through this process or will in the future, I thought it might be valuable to share my experience.

DISCLAIMER: This is not legal advice. It’s just a list of a few of the lessons I learned while navigating this new pathway in the writing journey.


First, let me say I was happy with the company that published my first book. The publisher was easy to work with, and I had fully intended to leave the book with them. For several reasons, though, my husband and I decided to publish the next books in the series independently through our Wordstar Publishing Company. So, in order to promote the series as a whole, I needed to have the rights to the first book.

Once I had met the obligations required by my contract with the publisher, I requested the reversion of the rights to me, and the publisher agreed. That was the easy part of this whole process.

Note: This is still a work in progress, but here’s a list of some of the things I’ve learned:

  • Cover – I had to get a new cover since the original one was licensed by the publishing company. No problem here – I wanted a new cover anyway.
  • ISBN – a new publisher requires a new ISBN.
  • Content – I didn’t change any of the story content. The only changes were to the Copyright page and the About the Author page. However, this is an opportunity for authors to make significant changes to the content if they like.
  • Formatting – Since the publisher had made a few changes to the manuscript after I turned it over to them, I didn’t have the latest copy on my laptop. I requested and received the latest copy from them and they sent me a PDF. I had to convert it to Word in order to work with it in Vellum. There were a few “gotchas” along the way that made this the most time-consuming part of the process.
  • Reviews – I wanted to retain all of the 200+ reviews the book had on Amazon, so I contacted KDP Support and Author Central to make sure I was doing everything needed to keep the reviews. Basically, they told me the title, author, and metadata in the new edition had to be exactly the same as in the old edition. They suggested I publish the new edition while the old one was still online so that they could be linked.
  • KDP requirements – I decided to publish on Amazon first. When I had all the files in place, I let my publisher know the plan and I published the ebook and paperback through KDP. Everything went well until KDP did the content review and discovered the content was like the old version of the book which was still live on Amazon. I supplied them with an email the publisher had sent me that verified he was returning the rights to me. Then they linked the new edition with the old one so that the reviews would appear on the new detail page. There are still a few issues left to be resolved, but the new Wordstar version is available and can be purchased on Amazon.
  • Other retailers – I also published, with varying degrees of success, to the other retail platforms: Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple Books, Google Play, and ingram Spark. As of today, there are still some wrinkles that need to be ironed out. The publisher has not yet unpublished the first edition, and a few other issues need to be addressed.
  • The Audiobook – This is still uncharted territory to me. I’ll have to work with Findaway Voices to have the rights transferred to me and to change the cover image. The audiobook has more than 250 reviews on Chirpbooks, and I hope to find a way to keep those.
  • Miscellaneous – If you decide to get your book rights back for a book that was traditionally  published, be sure to save all the information from the former version, including ASIN and ISBN.
  • Major lesson learned – Be ready to deal with unanticipated problems.

Like most other things in life, this has taken a lot longer than I thought it would. And I discovered different members of support staffs had different answers to my questions. At least KDP will talk to the customer. The other retailers would only work through email, and that slowed things down considerably.

All in all, the reversion process has moved ahead reasonably well, and I’m still optimistic that we can resolve the rest of the issues.


So TkZers: Have you gotten rights back to a previously published book? Do you have any insights or advice to add to this list?


In celebration of having gotten this far, The Watch on the Fencepost ebook is available on Amazon all week for 99¢. Click here to get your copy.



“I started it … and to my surprise, I couldn’t stop. Nice job!” – Will Shortz, New York times crossword puzzle editor and NPR Puzzlemaster.



What Happens to Your Books When You Die?

by James Scott Bell

“Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?” – Last words of American author William Saroyan

Now what indeed! We all have to face it. While Blue Oyster Cult tells us not to fear The Reaper, we at least have to respect his use of the scythe.

Which brings up the subject of estate planning for writers. It’s a big topic, all the details of which can’t be covered in a single post. I hope to give you a broad outline which you can use for more focused attention. While I am a lawyer, and even played one on TV once, take this as the standard admonition to consult with your own lawyer and CPA as you make plans.

Don’t have a lawyer? You can get one, or you can use a resource like For a modest price LegalZoom will help you prepare estate planning forms. For a bit more, they offer you phone consultations. They even have an estate plan bundle that starts at $249.

Now, before you go to your Final Edit there is an in-between possibility we don’t like to think about but must—incapacitation. You attend ITW in New York and a brick falls on your head, rendering you unable to handle your finances or have a Martini with Gilstrap. You should have in place a Durable Financial Power of Attorney appointing your spouse, or someone you trust, as your agent to take care of these matters. See this article from Nolo. (I’m not going into Advance Care Directives, but you should have that, too.)

First Things First

Start a notebook for your heirs—a physical notebook—which will hold originals or copies of your important documents (e.g., will, trust, publishing contracts) along with a master document detailing things like bank accounts, internet passwords, social media sites, and people to contact for help in dealing with various matters, e.g., your CPA, your lawyer, your agent, your website admin, a friend who knows about online publishing. You want your heirs to not to feel overwhelmed, and knowing who to ask for help will be a tremendous relief.

Your books are Intellectual Property (IP) and as much a part of your estate as your furniture, fine china, and collection of Beanie Babies. Create a list for your notebook of all your literary properties, where and by whom they are published, and include both ASIN and ISBN numbers.

The copyrights stay in your name. After you shuffle off this mortal coil the clock starts ticking. Your copyrights (under current law) last another 70 years.

At the front of your notebook have a simple letter to your heirs, detailing how you’d like your IP to be handled.

Update this notebook as needed, and keep it in a secure location. Put a copy of your notebook on a thumb drive and put that somewhere else, like a safety deposit box or fireproof case.

Oh yes, and tell your heirs where they can find these items when you’re dead.

Will and/or Trust

You should have a will or a trust (or both). The decision on which to choose includes a number of factors you’ll need to discuss with your tax person and estate planner. One benefit of a trust is that it avoids probate. Another is that you can control how you want your IP handled, rather than have your heirs end up doing what they want with it. Your IP is placed in the trust and is governed by your specific instructions, not the whims of infighting heirs. (You may not think this could happen in your family, but I well remember the first words from my Gifts, Wills and Trusts professor in law school: “This course is about greed and dead people!” As with contracts—even (maybe especially) among friends and family—the wisest course of action is to get things down in writing. This goes a long way toward staving off ugly misunderstandings down the line.)

The executor (will) or the trustee (trust) should be someone who can understand the publishing business in order to keep watch on—and bucks flowing from—your IP. If you have a mature and trustworthy child you can train in the biz, that’s one option. A friend or colleague conversant with publishing is another. It takes time and effort to perform this service, so you’ll set up a fee. How much is a fluid concept. It can be an hourly rate, or a percentage of the net writing income (10% is a suggested baseline). For more details, see this article.

Then there is email to deal with—fan mail, requests for interviews, speaking requests. An auto responder can be set up to deal with most of these, but your executor/trustee should be prepared to respond to requests that can result in book sales (e.g., permission to reproduce a blog post).

And then there’s the matter of social media. You’ll want your website to stay live, but you have to figure out what to do with whatever else you’re involved with: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, Pinterest, Goodreads, YouTube. If you have many of these plates spinning and you want to keep them going, you might consider appointing a distinct social media executor. Anne R. Allen has a tremendous post on that subject.

My social media advice is to pick one or two you enjoy and forget the rest. But that’s another subject altogether. Sue has some good notes on social media here.

Where The Money Goes

The money you make from writing goes into a bank account, hopefully yours. This can be a personal account or a corporate account. Regardless, you’ll need to set things up so the flow continues and the monies can be dispersed to your heirs. Consider making the executor/trustee a signer on your bank account. That way they become the “surviving primary account owner” and can continue using the account, and the money in it, without complications.

I know that’s a lot to think about. But the time to start thinking about it is now. Do a little bit each week. Read helpful articles online (three good ones are here, here, and here).

Take the steps. Because contra Woody Allen’s dictum (“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens”) we’re all going to be there. Your heirs will be thankful that you made the proper preparations.

Comments welcome.


Story Idea, Soul, or Personality of the Writer – What Makes a Book Successful?

Some great thoughts on pursuing a story idea that you know is good, putting your soul into the story, and how your personality affects your chances of success. Below are excerpts from three great articles from the archives on what makes a book successful. Links are provided to the articles. Consider reading them. Then give us your thoughts below in the comments. Feel free to comment on other’s comments and strike up a discussion.

When I first met Kurt Muse about eight years ago, and he told me the story of his clandestine efforts to topple Manuel Noriega, and of his subsequent arrest and escape at the hands of Delta Force, I confess that I didn’t believe him. The story was too spectacular—too big—not to have been written about already. But it all checked out.

After Kurt and his wife, Annie, met with my wife, Joy, and me at the always-wonderful Café Renaissance in Vienna, Virginia, we shook hands and a pact was made. Together, we would write a book about courage and patriotism; about success over outrageous odds. It would be a story of public servants who truly serve the public, about people who risk everything for strangers with no expectations of recognition or thanks.

No one would touch it. – John Gilstrap – January 30, 2009


On a recent writer’s forum, someone asked the basic question: “what makes a good book?” Or, better yet, why is it that some books are hard to put down while others are easier to put down than a bucket of toxic waste?

From a technical standpoint, we could analyze the grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, command of the language, and a dozen other things we studied in school. (Which begs the question: why aren’t all English professors bestselling authors? But that’s something for another blog post.)

We could also discuss the book’s premise, theme, plot, voice, style, pacing, point of view, accuracy, and all those issues that were topics at the last writers’ conference workshop.

But my answer to what makes a good book is simple: soul. By that, I mean the soul of the writer. The more a writer involves or reveals his or her soul in the writing, the more the reader can and will relate to the story. Since soul is what separates us from the chimps and fish, it’s the element of a story for which we can all connect. – Joe Moore – January 28, 2009


I have been pondering the sticky issue of looks, personality and success and how this translates in the world of publishing.

I remember reading a story in the New York Times a few years ago on the anatomy of a bestseller and it compared two books coming out that year that had received huge advances and marketing budgets – one was The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and the other was (and this is prophetic…) something I can’t even remember. Anyway, the gist of the article was that the author of The Historian had been willing to do a great deal of publicity and ‘be out there’ while the other author was virtually a recluse. While The Historian went on to make millions the other book sunk like a stone despite all the publisher money thrown at it. The moral of the story (I think) was that to be a bestseller a writer had to throw aside introversion to be successful. Basically, this article suggested, a writer could no longer afford to sit behind a typewriter or a computer. Nowadays that’s a no-brainer but still it got me thinking about the thorny question of writer personality (and let’s face it looks) and success.

So, throw aside your political correctness and ponder this question…is it easier to be an attractive outgoing writer than a shy, ‘more homely’ one?

Perhaps it’s a crass question but not one I think that is without foundation – especially when photographs are on book jackets and websites and your personality is judged in a range of venues – from online blog entries to in-person panel presentations. How would some of the literary stars of yesteryear fare in our current media-centric environment? Can a writer even afford to be introverted these days? How much is publishing success like a throwback to high school – when many yearned to be the prettiest and bubbliest of them all? – Clare Langely-Hawthorne – January, 12, 2009

Please give us your thoughts.

True Crime Thursday – Federal Gas Relief


Photo credit: rock staar, unsplash

By Debbie Burke



Something for nothing is the bait that lures many people to fall for scams. Even more insidious are the ones that promise to solve a bona-fide problem. When there is pending legislation about that problem, the scam becomes even more convincing.

With skyrocketing gas prices, the stage is set for enterprising fraudsters who never let a good crisis go to waste.  

Attorney Steve Weisman, creator of, is consistently on the forefront of new scams that surface faster than lawn mushrooms after a rain. (His alerts have spawned several True Crime Thursday posts and he graciously agreed to be quoted again.)

The latest scam he highlighted is the Federal Fuel Relief Program.

Except there is no such program.

The FTC reports an uptick in calls, emails, and texts supposedly from government representatives who offer rebates or relief checks to soften the impact of high gas prices.

According to Steve: “All you need do, they tell you, is provide some personal and financial information in order to be eligible for the program.”

Sounds simple, right? Simple for scammers to steal your information to commit further fraud.

Why do people continue to fall for these tricks? Because it’s increasingly confusing to parse out actual facts from the news/rumor mill.

It’s even more difficult when some municipalities are in fact paying out such rebates, as described in this article on

The city of Chicago has already started issuing some of the 50,000 prepaid $150 gas cards and 100,000 prepaid $50 transit cards approved by the city council.

North Carolina and California have pending legislation for similar measures. Californians could qualify for up to $1050 in relief.

The proposed Gas Rebate Act of 2022 is currently being discussed in the U.S House of Representatives, potentially with payments of $100/month or higher to qualified households during every month that average gas prices are above $4/gallon.

Photo credit: boopathi-rajaa-nedunchezhiyan-unsplash

Whether these or other proposals pass is up in the air. Some end up only being hot air.

But people often assume they’ve gone into effect. Next thing they know, that friendly, helpful “government employee” calls up, offering to expedite the process. Just verify your Social Security number and bank account number so they can direct-deposit the rebate.

Steve’s tagline is “Trust me, you can’t trust anybody.” That includes the caller ID that claims the IRS or Social Security is on the line or a link in an official-looking email or text that takes you to a fraudulent site masquerading as a government agency.

Scammers continue to refine their tactics and grow ever more sophisticated and convincing with their frauds.

Warn family and friends, particularly seniors who are prime targets, NEVER to give out personal information when someone calls, emails, or texts, without first verifying the sender is legitimate.

The Federal Fuel Relief Program is pure flatulence. The only relief is to hang up or hit delete.


TKZers: What’s the latest scam you or someone you know has been targeted by?

Feel free to share horror stories. The more we know, the less likely we are to be victimized.



Please check out my thriller Stalking Midas about a glamorous con artist who targets an addled millionaire with nine feral cats.


Major online bookstores

What’s Your Name Again?

By John Gilstrap

Of the countless moving parts in a story, an element I find among the top five most annoying is the naming of characters.

A famous romance writer said in an article I read years ago that she cannot type the first word of her stories until she knows the characters’ names. The names, she said, say so much about the characters and their personalities, and without that bit of creative data locked into her brain, none of the other stuff works.

To me, characters’ names–particularly the minor ones–are little more than labels. I have to call them something, right? There are practical considerations, too. Many of those are tied to the fact that I want to make this writing business as simple as possible for myself.

I keep the names short.

I’m going to be typing the letter sequence of a name dozens, if not hundreds, of times in a manuscript. Typing four letters hundreds of times is easier than typing 12 or 15 letters hundreds of times.

I keep the names pronounceable. 

When I read silently, I actually read aloud but without making noise. I pronounce every word in my head as I plow through, and when I stumble onto a name that I can’t pronounce, the story stops for me. This is one of the primary reasons why I don’t read fantasy stories. In my own writing, one of the reasons why I don’t deal with Middle Eastern terrorists–other than the fact that every other writer in my corner of the thrillerverse is doing it–is I don’t want to get bogged down with Middle Eastern names.

I avoid homophonic names.

At the beginning of each book, I tackle the administrative task of updating my auto correct to automatically capitalize my characters’ names. Thus, when I type jonathan, it automatically converts to Jonathan. Thus, you’ll never find me writing a book with a character named Robin. If I did, then the bird version of the road would be capitalized. The reason why my recurring character named Boxers has an S at the end is so it doesn’t conflict with the pugilistic version of the word.

Google is my friend.

The drug cartels of Central and South America are frequent enemies of Jonathan Grave, which means I create POV characters who need Hispanic names. To find them, I turn to Google and type “Colombian (or Mexican or Venezuelan) surnames” and “Colombian (etc.) first names.” Then I shop for names from those lists.

Excel is also my friend.

My Victoria Emerson series is a true series, where each story builds on the one that preceded it. At this point, having just submitted White Smoke (the third book in the series, following Crimson Phoenix and Blue Fire), I’m about 900 pages into the story. Between main characters, secondary characters and walk-ons, I’ve introduced about 150 named players. The only way to keep them straight was to create a spreadsheet that documented their names, a descriptor, and which subplot they’re a part of.

So, TKZ family, are character names important to you? How do you choose them?