Chatting With The Pros

By John Gilstrap

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

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

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

00:00 Introduction

02:00 Do editors and agents work well together?

04:09 Managing author expectations

05:16 Do publishers nurture new authors?

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

10:16 Do authors need agents?

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

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

16:12 Traditional publishing is starving for new writers

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

23:20 Are conferences important?

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

How To Properly Introduce
Your Protagonist

Pleased to meet you! Hope you guess my name.
But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.
— The Rolling Stones, Sympathy For The Devil

By PJ Parrish

Life is a cocktail party, as Mike Jagger once sang. So is fiction when it comes to introducing your protagonist. (tortured metaphor alert. More to come.) I’ve noticed a trend in our First Page Critique submissions of late. Our submitting writers are having trouble introducing their main characters to their readers.

Most recently, James dealt with this issue in his Sunday critique of a self-described “comic noir” submission titled The Book Shop. James wrote:

The narrator is passive. Maybe that’s intended at the start, but at least give him some feeling—annoyance, aggravation, mad because his wife left him—anything. (Note: We don’t know what sex the narrator is, and that’s a problem. I’ll assume for discussion purposes that it’s a man. But do something on this page to clue us in.)

I had exactly the same reaction on the two points James mentions. First, I assumed the narrator was a woman! Which tells you there is a very basic problem. And second, as James says, the narrator is passive in feelings and thought. And the other character, the old woman, is vividly drawn, which intensifies the problems.

Maybe this post is going to sound too basic for some of you. But I think we need to review how to properly introduce your protagonist. This came up in a thread on my Facebook feed recently. Here’s some interesting comments from both readers and writers:

  • Mary Ellen Hughes: I tend to get a mental image pretty quickly. Some physical description will come into that mental image, but other parts get ignored. And I can’t tell you which parts my brain picks up on and which it doesn’t. My only request, as a reader, is that you give me a hint quickly. Don’t tell me on p 250 that the MC is a short redhead if you haven’t told me that before — b/c she’s already a tall blonde to me.
  • Anonymous reader: I like getting a few clues, especially about things like height and weight that will affect their ability to do certain things or anything that would make them stand out in a crowd.
  • Barb Goffman: As a reader, I don’t love a lot of description. I often will find that even with description, the image I get of a character in my mind is different. What I often tell my clients is to very early on, when we first meet a character, tell the reader one memorable thing about the character’s appearance. And let the reader decide the rest for themselves. Too much detail annoys me. About the third time you describe your character’s “startling turquoise eyes” as being “startling” and “turquoise,” I’m going to get a little techy. I like a moderate amount of details.
  • Steve Liskow: Behavior is much more important than description, unless you’re talking about a giant or a dwarf. I submitted a story to a market last week, and only as I was writing the email, did I realize that not only did my character have no description (except male, by implication), he didn’t even have a name.

So how do you do a proper how-do-you-do? It’s not as easy as you might think. Consider first, what point of view you’re working in. If you’re using first person, you are greatly limited in what you can describe because everything must be filtered only through your protagonist’s “camera.” But there are pitfalls even in third-person POV.

Now, not all books open with the protagonist. Some might have a prologue or an opening chapter say, from the villain’s POV. But whenever your protag does appear, you must establish two things immediately:

  • Gender
  • Name

Here’s another thing that bugs me. Gender-neutral unisex names are popular now. Especially in fiction. So if you’ve chosen a first name like Blair, Casey or Jordan, you darn well better be clear if it’s a he or she. I just finished Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel. Loved it more than I can say, but the first chapter is titled “Vincent In The Ocean” and it took me at least four chapters to get used to the conceit that Vincent is a woman. (a rather twee reference to the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay).  Don’t be coy about this, please. It just annoys readers.

So how do your gracefully slip in your protag’s name? Third person is no problem, just slip it in as soon as possible. I always put “Louis Kincaid” somewhere on my first page. But for Heart of Ice, he doesn’t show up until chapter two:

He stood at the railing of the ferry, the sun warm on his shoulders but the spray on his face cold.

Twenty-one years ago he had stood at the bow of a ferry much like this one. Then, the air had been filled with the smell of diesel but now the ferry left nothing in its wake but a plume of white water and shimmering rainbows.

Then, it had all been about leaving behind the ugly memories of his foster homes in Detroit and going “Up North” to the magic island just off the tip of the Michigan mitten. It had been about eating all the fudge his stomach could hold, seeing a real horse up close and racing the other foster kids around the island on a rented Schwinn.

Now, it was all about her.

Louis Kincaid looked down at Lily. She was peering toward the island so he couldn’t see her face. But he didn’t need to. He knew what this trip meant to her. He wondered if she had any idea what it meant to him.

Only seven months ago had he found out he was a father. It had been a shock, but from the moment he saw Lily he was grateful Kyla had not done what she had threatened to do that night in his dorm room. He could still hear their angry words.

Hers—I’ll get rid of it.

And his—Go ahead.

He looked down again at Lily’s crinkly curls.

Thank God…

This book is about Louis connecting with the daughter he didn’t know he had. So I felt compelled to go a little heavy with backstory to “introduce” both Louis and Lily. But this is all you get. The forward plot takes over.

But first person is much harder. One graceful way is to deal with it in dialogue via a second person. James does this in his first book Romeo’s Rules on the first page:

She put out her hand. “Nell,” she said.

“Mike,” I said.

“Happy to meet you Mike. Except…”


“You don’t look like a flower man.”

“What do I look like?”

“A football player, maybe?”

Name. Gender. Done. And a nice little physical descriptive detail to boot. Harlan Coben uses this technique often. Here’s an example from The Woods.

You can also be direct as Sue Grafton famously did in her opening of chapter one, book one:

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the State of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday, I killed someone and the thought weighs heavily on my mind.

Likewise, Jack Reacher needs no introduction. Yet Lee Child is always careful to insert the guy’s name at the get-go. Although we have to add a caveat here: In Killing Floor, Child switches to first person for Reacher and we never get his name. When you’re a international bestseller with 25 books under your belt, you can do this, too.

In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn is working in first person, toggling between husband Nick Dunne and Amy Dunne POVs. She titled each chapter with their names. This obvious ploy works mainly because she is also using a ticking-clock timeline with the fake abduction. Not recommended for beginners.

Another thing to establish as early as possible: exact age or age-range of your protag. And you should begin to establish the world view, education level or sophistication (or lack). Readers want to bond with and root for your protag and the sooner you can give them elements to grab onto, the better.

What should you not do when introducing your character?

  • Too much physical description. A nice hint, as James does with Mike Romeo above, is always good. We get a quick visual that Romeo is a muscular kinda guy. That’s enough to tweak our interest. But don’t get bogged down in this too early.
  • Too much backstory. I gave you my own example from Heart of Ice above as an example that is borderline maybe too much. But I thought it important to clarify Louis’s anxious feelings toward his daughter. Think of backstory as going to a cocktail party. When a stranger introduces himself to you do you want to hear this?

Hello, my name is Norman Feckless. I’m a really successful gynecologist with a practice in LA. But I grew up in Fresno and I can’t tell you what a hell hole that was. God, you should meet my mother… Nothing like my wife Janet. Janet is hot, man. But I meet a lot of gorgeous women in my line of work. In fact, I married three of my patients. Of course, not all at once. Did I mention that Janet left me last month? Just ran off with her yoga instructor, Nancy. I got to keep her cat, though. That damn cat hates me…

Another issue to consider — ethnicity. My protag Louis Kincaid is biracial. It is pertinent to his character arc and in a couple books directly figures in the plot. But via reader feedback, I found over the years that if I don’t somehow slip this fact in early, readers feel misled. I recently did a critique for charity and in 30 pages, the writer failed to convey the fact that her protagonist was Black. I mention this only because race was directly related to her plot, especially in the tense interactions with her white husband. Is “white” now a vestigial default in fiction? Given the dazzling and expanding range of ethnicity of crime fiction protagonists, do we still need to mention it? I would like to hear what you all think about dealing with this.

Last point, and this goes back to the problem James had with his First Page submission: It is important, when introducing your protag, that he or she not be a cipher. In the submission, the secondary character, an older chubby chatty woman is well drawn with idiosyncratic dialogue and description. The protag, by comparison is pale and emotional impotent.

I was engaged by the seal woman. The poor soul with no name — well, he’s that guy lurking alone in the shadows with a scowl and a glass of scotch.. Don’t leave your protag sitting on the sidelines. Introduce him with a few good lines and get the party going.

Fishing For That Agent, Part Deux

So there I was at my inaugural writers conference back in 2011, sitting in the audience at Sleuthfest gathering in Florida, waiting for a panel to begin. I’d met John Gilstrap the day before and we closed down the bar (the first of many…and I mean many bars), and was sucking down a large coffee to absorb some kind of food for the brain.

Another swallow of scalding coffee. It was some kind of flavored stuff, but that didn’t matter, because I’d scalded my tastebuds with the first sip, so the black liquid was essentially flavorless.

Panelists drifted up to the front and took their seats. A gentleman on the front row opened a tripod and attached a video camera (yeah, it was ten years ago). I watched with interest as he dug out a stack of notebooks and settled himself in for the event.

The room filled. The panel on finding an agent began. I wondered why I was there. I’d just met my new agent, the one John said I needed to fire, so I didn’t need to be in there, but I couldn’t help myself.

I wanted to hear what Miss Lily had to say (of course that’s not her name, but I have to call her something). She was a presence in the bar the night before and people gathered around as she held court, but I was too green to join in, so I figured that she’d have plenty to say in that session.

The moderator barely had enough time to welcome everyone when the back door opened and a tardy Miss Lily blew in and made an entrance.

How do I say this delicately…humm.

Somewhere around six feet tall, she had a mane of dark hair, and wore oversize, comfortable clothes that were accessorized by lots of concealing scarves and big earrings. She came down the aisle like an expressive train.

Miss Lily took control of the conversation, and fielded dozens of questions as the hour progressed. I had a hundred questions, but the session recessed, leaving me reeling and feeling as if I’d been drinking from a firehose. With John’s previous recommendation about putting Starter Agent in a shallow grave, I was already wondering if I’d made a mistake.

I was in over my head.

The next panel didn’t interest met, and since I it was around two in the afternoon there in Florida, I wanted to absorb a little sunshine. The hotel had apparently learned their lesson and the bar was open. Taking my drink, I found a shaded table beside the swimming pool and settled in to ponder this new career.

That’s when Miss Lily blew through the doors and into my serene world. Cigarette and highball glass in one hand, and a cell phone in the other, she paced the pool, sending out great puffs of smoke and talking somewhere around AC/DC decibels.

She noticed that I was near the deep end of the pool, and established her territory near the shallow water. After ten minutes, and half a dozen cigarettes, she ended the call and shot me a look.

I gave her a smile in return.

She took a table several yards away and lit another.

I waved. “You can join me if you like.”

“No, thanks. I’m smoking.”

“The wind is in your direction. It won’t bother me.”

The Hairy Eyeball. “No, thanks.”

“Look, I know you’re an agent. Heard you inside a few minutes ago, but I won’t pitch to you. I already have an agent. I’d just like to talk about the business for a little while and get to know people. I’m on a learning curve since I recently sold my first manuscript. Come on. Sit down.”

A beat.

A second beat.

A third beat, and she gathered up a pack of toonies, cell phone, and a purse big enough to hold a case of beer. “All right.”

She joined me and noted my hat that was resting crown down on the table. “You a cowboy? You write westerns?”

“I’ve cowboyed some. I’m from Texas, but I don’t write westerns.”

We introduced ourselves and she lit another. “So what do you want to know?”

“So much I’m not sure where to begin.”

We talked for the next forty-five minutes or so, about writing and her end of the business. She told me how to write a query letter, though I didn’t need that particular bit of info, then we drifted on to our lives and exchanged brief histories.

My glass was empty, and so was hers, when conversation kinda dried up. “I need another drink.” I stood. “Can I get you one?”

“Sure.” She opened her purse.

“I’ll get it.”

“No. Men don’t buy me drinks, and especially writers.”

“Like I said, I’m from Texas. I’ll get it.”

Half expecting her not to be there when I returned, I crossed the patio. “Here you go.”

She took the glass and peered at me over the rim. “So, what’s your manuscript about?”

“It’s a historical mystery.”

“Tell me about it.”


Now, in the shade of an oak fifty years earlier, my Old Man taught me how to fish. Sitting by a lazy creek, he cast a bright top water lure. “Bass like things that are big and flashy. The idea is to throw your lure out into a likely looking place and watch it splash down. Be patient. Let the ripples expand and disappear until the lure is still.”

I’d unconsciously pitched out a big, flashy lure to Miss Lily. “Can’t tell you about my book.”

“Why not?”

“I said I wouldn’t pitch to you.”


The Old Man’s lure drifted slowly with the current. The rings expanded and disappeared. He shifted the chew in his cheek. “Then you give that lure a twitch. If nothing happens, give it a second twitch a few seconds later.

If you’re lucky, the water will explode when that big ol’ bass blows up from underneath.


“Who’s your agent?”

I told Miss Lily.

“I’ve never heard of her. You should get someone with more experience.”

“Someone’s already told me that.”

“They’re right. Get someone in New York. Like me. So what’s your book about again?”


The bass that had been eyeing the Old Man’s lure launched itself toward the surface. The water exploded and it grabbed the lure. “Then you set the hook!” He yanked on the rod and the fish was his.


It was at that moment that understanding dawned on me in Florida that day. I’d pitched out a lure, and Miss Lily couldn’t stand it. She wanted it, and struck. But unlike fishing, I wouldn’t set the hook.

“Said I wouldn’t pitch to you. I keep my word to people. I was raised by folks and grandparents who borrowed money from the bank on a handshake. That sense of honor reaches into many corners.”

She frowned, not understanding. “I’d consider representing you. If you write like you speak, I can market that voice.”

“I’m honored. And two or three months ago, we’d get serious about this, but I’ve signed with someone else. You understand.”

She didn’t. Miss Lilly spent the next two days working on me, trying to get me to pitch my manuscript. I was polite, but turned her down, the same way I’ve done it in the years since. Every time I run into her at a conference, we talk and she invariably asks me to send her something if my current agent and I part ways.

So, like I said in my post a couple of weeks ago, do your research, talk to agents if and when the opportunity presents itself, but don’t come roaring in with pitches in inopportune places. Go to the bar, or the pool, or anywhere we gather and meet those agents. Talk to them. Get to know them. They’re hammered on a daily basis by hopeful writers. Be restrained, but have that pitch polished and shiny and ready when they ask.

Then throw out that lure and give it a twitch.




My 50-Cent Masters Degree in English Language

Earning your Masters Degree in English Language takes intense concentration, five years of dedicated study, social-avoidant application, and plain old hard work. It also takes considerable funding—around $117,421.65. Mine cost 50 cents.

Now, I’m not knocking formal education from a reputable and prestigious institute of higher learning. No. Not at all. Nothing compares to personal exposure from profs and peers. But the end result, knowing linguistic principles and how to find/use English writing resources to polish your prose, is what an English language degree is all about.

Let me tell you where I’m coming from.

I’m a cheap SOB. I rarely pay full pop for anything, including books. The other week, I was snooping in a thrift shop and checking their used book section. There it was. This behemoth titled The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.

It was on an upper shelf and darn near took out my rotator cuff lifting it down. Whoa! This thing is like new! It was hard covered, bound in faux leather with faux gold-gilded page ends, and—I swear to God—had nearly two thousand of them chocked-full of every detail on the English language you can imagine.

I set it on a display counter and browsed. The copyright page said 1988, but that didn’t worry me none about being outa date. We’re talkin’ English here. Surely the words and structures haven’t changed much in thirty-three years except for some new-fangled lingo like “smartphone”, “pumpkin spice”, and “Covid19”. Let’s look at the good stuff—timeless stuff—like gerunds, compound predicates, interjections, inverted orders, irregular comparison of adjectives, prepositional phrases, and that elusive eunuch called a dangling modifier.

There’s something about a book of quality. You know. The paper book that’s perfectly typeset—bound so you can lay its front cover-spine-back cover on a surface and each page, as you turn, lies perfectly flat without having to weight one side and the other with a cordless drill and a ceramic garden gnome.

This is exquisite. The table of contents aroused me. Preface. Staff. History of the English Language. Languages of the World. Guide and Use of the Dictionary. Editorial Abbreviations. Pronunciation Key. English Handbook. An 1144 page dictionary?  If I knew everything in here, it’d be like having a masters degree in the English language.

With both hands that should’ve been in white gloves, I carried this treasure to the till. “I don’t see any price marked,” I said to the till-lady who looked like a hard-core, 50’s librarian crossed with an inked biker-chick, reluctantly volunteering at the hospital auxiliary store or maybe completing a plea-bargained, community work service program.

Anxiously, I awaited her answer.

Over cat-eye glasses, she read a corrugated poster board suspended from the ceiling by thick butcher twine. It stated their general price assignments. “Let’s see… looks like all our books are fifty cents apiece.” She cat-eyed at me. “No dickering, though.”

My vitals reacted. “You… you… you only want fifty cents for this?”

“Says fifty cents for all books.” She looked at something below the cat eyes. “Looks like you found yourself a bargain.”

Start The Car!  I did. I got the equivalent of a Masters Degree in English Language for a half-buck. Call it two quarters or a fifty-cent piece. Far, far less than a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte or the ridiculous rate for the parking ticket pinned to my windshield.

I took her home, this big book of English language. I call her “her” because I think English gets the Germanic short schtick from romance languages like French which is my wife, Rita’s, first language and I try to be romantic with Rita because being romantic with Rita usually pays off even though I don’t speak more than five words of proper French nor does Rita want me to.

I poured two fingers of Scotch and sat down to enjoy her. Her title somewhat perplexed me—The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. Now, everybody’s heard of Noah Webster, and everyone’s got his dictionary. Encyclopedia? Duh. Remember back in grade school when you were either on Team Britannica or Team World Book?

Hmmm… I see what they’re doing here. They’re blending an all-encompassing dictionary in with an encyclopedia strictly dedicated to English language structure. Right on! But, what’s a Lexicon?

I was tempted to Google it. However, the answer was right in the preface. “Lexicon can be a book containing an alphabetical arrangement of the words in a language and their definitions; the vocabulary of a language, an individual speaker or group of speakers, or a subject; or the total stock of morphemes in a language.”

Morphemes? I had to Google that one, and I suppose that anyone with a Masters Degree in English Language would know that “a morpheme is the smallest meaningful lexical item in a language. A morpheme is not necessarily the same as a word. The main difference between a morpheme and a word is that a morpheme sometimes does not stand alone, but a word, by definition, always stands alone.”

I didn’t know that. I found out there were a lot of things I didn’t know about the English language as I paged through her, The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. There was a short history lesson that clearly documented our language’s evolution from Old English through Middle English and on to Early Modern English. I especially got a kick out of the spelling and sound of the West Saxon version of the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6 of the Bible’s King James Version. It’s impossible to reproduce on my modern keyboard so I’ve attached a photo/screen shot.

Try pronouncing this gibberish after a few triple whiskeys. Reminds me of a guy named Rod Tubbs who was in our police poker club. Tubbs spoke like this halfway and worse through every evening.

Enough sidetrack. English study is a serious business and, if I wanted to get my money’s worth, I needed to keep paging. I’ll save you from regurgitating the 1144 page dictionary, but I do say the Practical English Handbook part was fascinating. I didn’t think it could happen, but it blows Elements Of Style out of the water. Here’s the prelude to the most concise, 45-page guide I’ve ever read:

The purpose of this Handbook is to provide a quick, easy-to-use guide to grammar, correct usage, and punctuation. It is intended for use in the business office, in the home, and in school. Secretaries, writers, teachers, and students will find it especially useful. The Handbook is divided into 25 sections or chapters each covering an important aspect or problem in English. The book is designed so that it may be used as a step-by-step complete self-study English review. But, in addition, it is a complete reference handbook for day-to-day use whenever a question arises concerning English useage or punctuation.”

I’m not going to list each chapter, as I don’t want to write an encyclopedic post full of lexiconal morphemes. But I do want to highlight the Parts Of Speech chapter, the Sentence Patterns chapter, and the Punctuation Review chapter. There were more goods packed in short spaces than I could ever imagine. Just the information on commas alone was worth my price of tuition.

Speaking of the price of tuition, you’re probably wondering how I came up with the Masters Degree in English Language figure of $117,421.65. Well, I went to the University of British Columbia’s website and looked up the details of their Masters of Arts — English Language program. Here’s a snippet from the UBC MAEL page:

The UBC English Graduate Program, one of the most vibrant and wide-ranging in Canada, has been awarding the M.A. degree since 1919. Students may earn the degree in each of two areas: English Literature and English Language. Indeed, the UBC English Department is one of the few departments in North America to offer a language program in addition to its literary programs.

The English Language program includes specializations in history and structure of language, discourse and genre analysis, and history and theory of rhetoric. Faculty members in the Language program teach and supervise research in descriptive linguistics, historical linguistics, cognitive linguistics, functional grammar, semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis, stylistics, genre studies, and history and theory of rhetoric. Students in the English Literature program can take advantage of Language graduate courses; recent offerings include courses on reported speech and its rhetorical versatility across genres; the uses of classical rhetoric for contemporary critical practice; and cognitive approaches to the language of literature. By the same token, Language students can take advantage of the wide variety of Literature courses our department offers.”

Below this pitch is their rates. Basic tuition is $6,358.13 per year and their living-within costs are starting at $17,126.20 per year. That adds to a total yearly amount of $23,484.13. Seeing as it takes five years to earn an MA, that means getting a Masters Degree of English Language will set you back $117,421.65.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to think I really can get the equivalent of an expensive, five-year university program by reading my fifty-cent book. I have a high regard for education and highly educated people, and I truly respect their degrees. But what I did buy with my half dollar was access to a wealth of knowledge in The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.

I don’t know if you can stumble upon this language beauty in a used book store. If you can, by all means grab it. I do know, however, that you can get copies on Amazon. They list a used hardcover for a very reasonable $15.68.

Okay, Kill Zoners. Have any of you got a copy of The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language? And what English language resources do you recommend? The University of Kill Zone floor’s mic is now open.


Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner in the Province of British Columbia. Now, he’s an indie writer with an eight-part series of based-on-true-crime stories as well as many stand alones.

Garry also hosts a popular blog on his website at You can follow GarryRodgers1 on Twitter or follow him around in his boat floating on the Pacific saltwater at Vancouver Island.

Haiku, Themes, Symbolism, and the Subconscious

Haiku, Themes, Symbolism, and the Subconscious
Terry Odell


Photo by Terry Odell

Joyce Hooley’s post on Saturday got me thinking.

I recall learning about haiku in high school, and being a dismal failure at coming up with anything significant. Quoting from Joyce’s post, “at its essence, a haiku is a short poem that uses an image from nature to evoke a particular season in a particular place, and then uses a break in the rhythm of the poem to juxtapose that image with another image, or to juxtapose two aspects of the central image, and thereby prompt reflection.”

I’m not a poet, not by any means. My in-person critique group in Orlando included two excellent poets, and my feedback was generally along the lines of  “I think a comma here would help.” Not to say I didn’t appreciate their work, but constructing it on my own wasn’t/isn’t in my makeup.

Nevertheless, I gave Joyce’s challenge a try. I looked out my window, and this is what I came up with.

A breezeless morning
Aspen leaves are motionless
I miss the rustling

Not particularly profound, but for the scientist in me, it met the syllable rules, and that was enough.

Joyce’s reply to my offering”

Because aspens are so often used to portray rustling, shifting, motion, using them to portray stillness is very effective for suggesting a strangeness in that stillness, suggesting restlessness in the viewer…

Did I have any of that in mind when I wrote my little poem? Not a bit of it. Did I even “see” it when I read what I’d written. Nope. When I look out my office window, I see aspen trees. That’s what grows there. I didn’t chose the species, or think about what they meant. I admire Joyce’s ability to see beyond the obvious.

Which (circuitously) brings me to the question of writing fiction. We find underlying themes in our books. Do we know what they are when we start writing? Considering the current WIP (a romantic suspense). It took 32 chapters for Kiera to reveal the piece of her past that could destroy her growing relationship with Frank. Frank was nicer; he told me his problem much earlier in the book. Characters’ pasts shape their futures, and can drive the story. For me, more often than not, it’s discovering a theme, and then going back and “filling in the blanks.” Sometimes, when I consider theme, I think I’m writing one book over and over: a character’s road to self-discovery.

Back in high school English, we read and analyzed works of literature. Mr. Holtby was always asking what the significance of this or that was. As students, we asked whether the authors consciously knew this as they were writing. Why did Hemingway decide the old man’s eyes would be blue? If the book is set in Puerto Rico, don’t most natives have brown eyes? And on and on, through many books. Why was the house yellow? Why was the bird an eagle and not a hawk?

Ultimately, Mr. Holtby suggested that as the authors were writing, some words felt “right” and others didn’t. When I was writing my first novel, Finding Sarah, Randy, the hero was coming home from a rough day. He went down the hall, opened the door to a spare bedroom, and sat down at his grandmother’s piano for the first time since she’d died.

My reaction was, “Randy? Why didn’t you tell me you played the piano?” Going back, however, I discovered that there was only one line I’d written that didn’t go along with his talent.

Some authors need a theme before they start writing. I recall a workshop where the author read us passages of her book, and asked us to identify the theme. Not one of us could. Her theme was “Ties That Bind” and she showed the character strapping on a wristwatch, tying his shoes, and I don’t remember what else. But to the participants, these were merely normal actions in the scene.

I have no answers. What about you? Do you see themes? If you write, do you know them beforehand? Do you go out of your way to include actions that speak to the theme? Is it an after-the-fact process, or do things fall into place from your subconscious?

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

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

With a Little Help from My Friends

By Debbie Burke





All right, so that’s not news to anyone at TKZ.

Truth is we’d rather parade naked down the mall than sit at a lonely table full of books in front of Barnes & Noble, directing people to the restroom.

But we gotta do it sometimes if we want to sell books.

One way to make promotion less painful is to join with other authors.


  1. Misery loves company (just kidding!).
  2. Being in front an audience by yourself is scary. Being in front of audience with colleagues is easier.
  3. A solo appearance means you carry 100% of the responsibility to entertain the audience. Join with other authors and that splits the responsibility up.
  4. More authors draw more interest…unless you’re Lee Child, who doesn’t need help.


  1. Find other authors.

Invite one to three other authors in your area to join you either in person or by zoom. A total of three or four offers good variety while giving everyone a chance to talk. More than that is too crowded and cumbersome.

  1. Decide on a genre and theme.

Montana authors Leslie Budewitz, Christine Carbo, Debbie Burke, Mark Leichliter

My recent event focused on crime fiction, combining four subgenres: cozy mystery (Leslie Budewitz), small town police procedural (Mark Leichliter), police procedural in a national park (Christine Carbo), and thriller (Debbie Burke). The title was “Murder, Inc. – How Montana authors kill people…on the page.”

Include variety in subgenres so there aren’t two cat cozy authors competing with each other.

For instance, a children’s literature gathering could feature one author who writes picture books, one middle grade, and one young adult, reaching three different audiences.

  1. Set up a venue.

Weather permitting, many people feel more comfortable outdoors these days. Depending on where you live, indoor settings may or may not be available.

I’ve been lucky to be hosted twice by a dream open-air location in Bigfork, Montana, right beside the Swan River. Lake Baked Bakery/Riverview Bar has a large grassy area with tables and chairs.

Lake Baked Bakery/River View Bar, Bigfork, Montana

Many cafes, coffee houses, brew pubs, and independent bookstores are struggling financially due to the pandemic. The ones I’ve approached are enthusiastic about hosting activities that draw more customers.

Independent-living senior communities are a good bet to find  many avid readers. So are schools, community colleges, and libraries.

  1. Decide on a format.

A panel discussion with Q&A from the audience works well. Designate one person as moderator. S/he has a list of prepared questions and keeps the discussion moving.

If you decide to do open readings, they should be short—no more than five minutes per person, broken up with discussion and questions between authors.

  1. Publicize the event.

Here’s where having friends is a real force multiplier. Each author has their own blog and email list to disseminate info about the appearance. Each has their own social media followers. If there are four participants, that’s four times the number of contacts than if you did it by yourself.

Press releases to newspapers/radio are more likely to be noticed if there are three or four authors appearing together. Then it becomes an event of interest to the community instead of a lonely author crying in the wilderness.

The venue may have a Facebook page or other outlet where they publicize events. Ask them to include yours. Again, that reaches a wider, different demographic than simply reading fans.

Supplement these efforts with posters around the area and you should have a respectable turnout.

  1. Set up and logistics.

Scope out the venue before the event. Find out what equipment, chairs, tables, etc. they can provide and what you need to bring yourselves.

You need sound equipment–an amplifier and at least two mics for four people. If the venue doesn’t have that, you may know someone who will let you use their equipment. If not, you may need to rent it.

Leslie Budewitz is my frequent partner-in-crime for live presentations. Her husband Don is a musician and he graciously sets up and runs his equipment for us. I always buy a drink and snack for great volunteer helpers like him.

If you need Power Point capability for slide shows, verify that the venue’s system is compatible with yours. Sometimes you can put a thumb drive in their computer. Other times, it’s better to bring your own computer but check that connecting cords work.

Always, always, always test video and audio beforehand. Glitches are uncomfortable not only for you but your audience as well.

Depending on the venue, if there’s a stage, you can sit on chairs/bar stools. Or you may prefer to stand/walk around as you talk.

Set the tone. If possible, arrange the audience seating to be comfortable and relaxed. Rows of chairs are not as friendly as groupings like in a café or bar.

  1. The day of the event.

Arrive at least a half hour early to set up/test equipment. Always, always, always test sound equipment before the presentation.

If the venue serves refreshments, buy some and encourage others. The business is supporting you to improve their bottom line. The higher their sales, the more likely they’ll invite you back again. Thank your host and the servers and tip generously.

During the discussion, encourage the audience to ask questions. The more interaction with them, the better.

Beforehand, set up your own book table.

Bring pens, business cards, and swag.

Bring a signup sheet for your mailing list.

Bring change for cash purchases.

If you use a credit card reader, make sure you can log into the venue’s wi-fi.

Oh yeah, don’t forget to bring your books!

Consider holding a drawing or contest with your book as the prize. People love to win free stuff.


Photo credit: Kay Bjork

Take a deep breath and try to relax. Initially, you may feel like you’re going to an IRS audit but you’re not.

The audience came because they’re interested in reading. They want to learn more about you as authors and your books. Make it enjoyable for them and yourself.

We get by with a little help from our friends. 


 TKZers: Have you done live appearances? What tips can you offer?

If you haven’t yet done a live appearance, what is holding you back?



Debbie Burke enjoys meeting readers in person or by Zoom. To set up an appearance, please click on “Request a TKZ speaker” at the top of the page.

Here is her series sales link.

Art Lessons

You may recall that during the height of the pandemic I went on quite the painting binge with art providing a welcome respite as well as soothing creative outlet. I’m at the point where painting is now a part of my daily schedule (even nudging out my writing now and again) and a couple of weeks ago I participated in my first art show (!) and had my first work accepted into a real exhibition (which was very exciting!). Since then I’ve been reflecting on these experiences and have realized that the lessons I’ve learned though my painting are resonating with my writing as well. I fact, I think painting is actually helping me regain focus when it comes to my writing career.

For a start, I had no real expectations when it came to my painting. I was braver and less inclined to worry about the potential for failure (actually, I expected to fail but thought ‘what the hell’ anyway). Most of this bravery stemmed from an initial meeting I had with another artist who encouraged me to think more professionally about my art and who mentored me through the process of applying for exhibitions and shows and helped advise me on the business side of art (of which I was completely ignorant). It was also clear from the start that all I really needed to do is just put my work out there – and this was the first real lesson I’ve taken to heart when it comes to my writing. For many (many…) years I’ve relied more on my agent to send out my work while I focused solely on the writing aspect, only to realize that this meant that many (many…) projects ended up stalled in a kind of weird limbo. Not that this was anyone’s fault necessarily, but I realize now that I didn’t really take charge of my work or push for submission the way I should have. My experience with painting has shown me that I really need to adopt a more proactive ‘send it out into the universe’ approach…something which feels both liberating and terrifying, as well as necessary.

I have also been far less critical of my painting (probably because I had no expectations of success!) and happier to let a painting emerge and evolve over time. This has given me the freedom to experiment and try new approaches and techniques without obsessing about the end result. Of course it’s easy to paint over a failed painting and far less soul destroying than rewriting a novel…but when it comes to writing I’ve always been far more critical and ‘editorial’ from the start of the first draft. Now I see that if I adopted the kind of approach and attitude I have to my painting, the writing process could be far less fraught with self-doubt and criticism (well, maybe…).

Finally, I’ve learned that while preparation and professionalism remain key to both painting and writing – the true heart of the issue lies in the concept of identity. Once I allowed myself to identify as an artist, the rest flowed naturally. This fact alone has helped reinforce how important mindset really is to success. I wonder if over the years I’ve never really accepted my identity as a writer and this is why I’ve been far less confident and proactive than perhaps I should have been. In this way my painting has really helped me refocus on my career goals, both as a painter and a writer.

So TKZers, are there lessons you’ve learned from other creative endeavors that have helped inform your writing process or career?

Haiku…an Introduction

Adding poetry to your writing routine

By Joyce Hooley and Steve Hooley

Today we are going to have some fun with poetry, haiku to be specific. We’ll learn the rules for writing haiku and how enjoyable it can be, and maybe even discover that we want to add it to our writing routine. Warning: This post may be addictive.

I was recently introduced to this subject, when my sister published a book of haiku. I did some searching for the rules and quickly found myself distracted, walking around the house with my fingers in the air counting syllables.

In reviewing what has been discussed here at TKZ, in regards to poetry, I found that JSB had discussed epigraphs recently. Six months ago, Clare asked who reads poetry. And Sue keeps us up to date on brain research and psychology. But I didn’t find any discussion on writing poetry, so today is a good day to start.

Our guest blogger today is Joyce Hooley, retired pediatrician who has worked in public health and clinical pediatrics in the U.S. and in Africa. She is a world traveler and has written books about her experiences in the places she has lived and worked. She currently lives and writes in North Carolina. Her recently published book is Fifty-Two Haiku, A Year on Plott Balsam Mountain.

Joyce, thanks for joining us today and introducing us to writing Haiku.


On Haiku

By Joyce Hooley

Most people, when asked about haiku will offer a simple definition: it is a poem written in three lines with a total of seventeen syllables. The first line, they will tell you, must contain five syllables, the second seven and the last five. But that definition does not capture the spirit of haiku. More accurately, at its essence, a haiku is a short poem that uses an image from nature to evoke a particular season in a particular place, and then uses a break in the rhythm of the poem to juxtapose that image with another image, or to juxtapose two aspects of the central image, and thereby prompt reflection. Haiku originated in Japan where it was intended to evoke Buddhist reflections on nature. But with this juxtaposition of images, haiku can also contain the elements of the most basic story: a subject (encapsulated in an image,) and a transformation (encapsulated in a juxtaposition.) It is for this reason that writing haiku can be such a great exercise for any writer. It is a method for sharpening focus. What am I trying to say? Can I distill it to a vivid image and one revealing transformation or contrast?

Haiku evolved from a 13th -14th century Japanese poetry form, a hokku, which was the beginning verse of a rengu, a longer poem written by two or more poets in collaboration, line by line, back and forth. It was not until the 19th century that the term “haiku” was used to refer to the evolved form. Matsuo Basho was one of the most famous of the early writers of haiku. Below are a few examples from his approximately 1000 haiku. Notice that, translated into English, these haiku no longer contain seventeen syllables.

Clear water—

A tiny crab

Crawling up my leg.


The squid seller’s call

Mingles with the voice

Of the cuckoo.



the cicada’s cry

drills into the rocks.

I wrote my recently published collection, Fifty-Two Haiku: A Year on Plott Balsam Mountain, in the year 2010. As I went about my daily activities that year, my walks through the woods and my garden chores, I challenged myself to stay present to each moment, alert for an image of the season that would inspire a haiku. I jotted down descriptions of sensory images that caught my eye, or ear, or nose, and kept these in a small notebook. I was still practicing pediatrics at the time, but I had Mondays off and each Monday morning I sat down and composed from one of the most compelling of the images. The rest of the week as I had time, I edited, tweaked, and played with the poem. It was, for me, a form of the discipline that Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, calls her “morning pages.”

The practice greatly elevated my days. Robert Haas, in his introduction to The Essential Haiku, Versions of Baho, Buson, and Issa, (Harper Collins, 1994) wrote that when Buson, the great mid-eighteenth-century Japanese poet, was asked by a student if there was a secret to haiku, he replied, “Yes, use the commonplace to escape the commonplace.” I was not trying so much to escape the commonplace as to dwell in it more fully, to be alive to it, to relish it. Writing haiku helped me to pay attention.


Thanks, Joyce, for a great discussion on haiku.


Okay, TKZ community, now it’s your turn with any comments or questions for Joyce.

And then it’s time for you to try your hand at haiku. Put on your thinking caps, look around, find a sensory image that distills the essence of what you are experiencing, and transform that image into a haiku. So, lay down your pencil, get your fingers in the air, maybe get out the thesaurus, and start counting syllables. Let’s get those neurons firing and create some poetry. Where else can you write poetry and have it published in the same day?

After Jim’s recent discussion of epigraphs, and learning about haiku, it struck me that we could write our own haiku epigraphs for our books. Written by us, totally unique, and custom made for our book. An epigraph in three lines.

 The assignment for today: #1 or #2, and an introduction:

  1. Since nature is the traditional topic for haiku, look out your window and share something in a haiku that surrounds and inspires you, or is unique to your world.
  2. Write a haiku appropriate for an epigraph for a book you have written, are working on now, or have plans for writing in the future.
  3. Please give us a brief introduction to your haiku.

Here’s my nature haiku as we cut firewood for winter heat:


dead tree bows to ground

submits to saw and splitter

winter heat in rows


Okay, please share your creation.

True Crime Thursday – A Small Town’s Loss of Innocence

West entrance to Fuel Fitness

By Debbie Burke



This is a post I never imagined I’d write, nor is it one I ever wanted to write.

September 16, 2021 started as gorgeous sunny morning in my hometown of Kalispell, Montana.

The night before had been the first freeze of the season. Still-hopeful gardeners covered tomato plants with blankets. Burning bushes transitioned from green to deep pink. Trees were turning yellow, red, and orange.

Kalispell is not without crime. Thirty years ago, we didn’t lock our houses and often left keys in the ignition. No longer. Still, it’s generally a quiet, safe community.

I drove to my regular morning workout at Fuel Fitness gym on Highway 2. The parking lot is behind the building on the north side. I parked in the last slot at the far end, away from other cars.

The Zumba class takes place in an interior studio with south-facing windows, separated from the main exercise equipment area. The music is loud, drowning out exterior sounds.

In the Zumba class, we never heard the gunshots.

At 11 a.m. the music had just ended on the last song when an employee hurried into the studio. Calm but nervous, she said there had been a shooting in the parking lot and the building was locked down. Police and sheriff deputies were on scene.

More vehicles, with lights and sirens, arrived every minute.

We watched two ambulances and a fire truck scream past the studio windows facing Highway 2.

People in the main gym area were looking out the north windows at the parking lot. That didn’t seem smart so I stayed well away.

Officers filled the lobby and check-in area. More lined up outside the glass wall facing the lot.

Employees moved in and out of the manager’s office. They told us that the scene was secured and there was no more danger but reiterated no one could leave the building.

Rumors and speculation circulated among about 50 patrons as we waited. People called loved ones. I received texts asking if I was safe. A Zumba friend had left her phone in her car. Her sister texted me saying she couldn’t get hold of her. Were we okay? I gave the friend my phone to reassure her family.

After about 15 minutes, the two ambulances left, sirens wailing.

Details dribbled out from people who had witnessed the incident through the north windows.

The alleged killer’s blue truck and black trailer he was living in.

A man had been living in his blue pickup and black cargo trailer in the gym parking lot for a couple of weeks. For $25/month, he could use the gym’s showers and bathroom. But apparently there had been complaints about him.

Later I learned he had previously been living in the parking lot of another gym and had been asked to leave the premises.

On this day, the manager and assistant manager went out to the parking lot and told him he had to go. They refunded his fees. He demanded more money. They refused. He said they were going to die today and pulled a gun.

According to witnesses, he shot the manager. The assistant manager took cover and escaped injury.

A gym patron was in the parking lot, checking on his dog in his truck, when he witnessed the commotion. He grabbed a gun from his truck and ordered the instigator to stop. The instigator shot at the patron who returned fire.

Both the instigator and the patron were wounded in the exchange of gunshots.

Locked down inside the gym, we knew none of these details, only that one person was dead and two were wounded, none of them identified. We were assured there was no further danger but we could not leave because the parking lot was a crime scene.

In the lobby, a man held the leash of a large, tan-and-white pitbull, patting him and talking to him. The dog sat quiet, panting. He was amazingly well-behaved, considering his owner, the Good Samaritan, had just been shot.

An officer announced that they needed witness statements from everyone inside, whether or not they had seen or heard anything. Then, one by one, we would be escorted outside to check for damage to our vehicles and to retrieve personal belongings.

The witness form asked for name, address, phone numbers, date of birth, and information about what we had seen or heard. Mine was easy since I had none.

People milled around and speculated.

Snippets of conversation: How could someone shoot an unarmed guy like that? He was just doing his job. It’s just plain wrong. I hope the manager and the hero are all right and the effing shooter is dead.

The business phone rang incessantly. Employees answered inquiries but couldn’t offer more information.

An hour passed.

My white Toyota is the last car in the line. The black trailer was about 50 feet behind my car.

At that point, I decided it was safe to look out a window to check my car. Yellow crime scene tape ran behind it but it appeared undamaged. However, several officers stood near it. That made me wonder if it had been hit. I told the officer collecting witness statements that my car was at the far end of the lot. She made a note and said she would call me next.

She also said no cars would be allowed to leave the lot because of the ongoing investigation. People who had not witnessed the incident would be released soon but needed to call for rides.

A sheriff detective said I couldn’t go to my car because it was too near the crime site. Since I had witnessed nothing, I would be permitted to leave the area, escorted by an officer.

Perhaps 50 officers were clustered in groups around the lot, talking. That had to be every on-duty law enforcement officer in the county, plus more. At least 20 city, county, and state vehicles with flashing lights blocked the entrance and lined the highway.

The officer escorted me to one boundary of the yellow crime scene tape strung across the parking lot exit. He turned me over to a different officer who logged my name on a check-out sheet. I ducked under the crime scene tape and continued to the exit. Another man approached and said he was a chaplain for the police and fire department and offered assistance, now or later, with processing the incident.

Witnesses being questioned

The alleged killer’s blue truck and black trailer. My car was about 50 feet behind the trailer.

Several hours of uncertainty followed. But, in a small town, everyone knows everyone. Between phone calls and texts, by about four p.m., I had figured out:

The instigator was in critical condition in the hospital;

The Good Samaritan hero was in good condition in the hospital;

The manager was dead. His name was Matthew David Hurley.

Matt was 27 and engaged to be married, always friendly, smiling, and welcoming.

A couple of weeks earlier, I had asked him if he could put up a poster on the bulletin board about a book event I was doing with three other mystery authors. “Sure!” he said. “We love to support locals. It’s all about community.”


The next morning, the parking lot was cleared and we could pick up our cars. The pavement had been scrubbed of blood stains. The blue truck and black trailer were gone. No sign remained of the deadly showdown.

Matt was right about community.

That evening, a memorial was held in the parking lot. When I arrived, the area was packed with vehicles and about 200 people milled around outside, including Matt’s extended family who had arrived from Missoula.

A bonfire in an oil drum took the chill off the night.

The crowd ranged from a man with long flowing white hair to middle-aged people to young families with kids including an infant less than a month old. Matt’s sister held the leash of his beautiful Golden Retriever who wanted to make friends with everyone, including a dachshund that wasn’t quite sure about the big dog. Coworkers, gym customers, neighbors, buddies, and family—everyone was supportive of each other…and heartbroken.

I learned from a tearful employee that Matt had been killed instantly. She worried he might have been in pain and was reassured he had not suffered.

Someone pointed out the Good Samaritan hero who had been released from the hospital. He attended the memorial with his wife and teenage daughter. I’d seen him working out at the gym but didn’t know him. I learned his name is Will, a serious, unsmiling man in his forties.

He and the assistant manager, who escaped death during the shootout, were deep in conversation. After several minutes, they hugged like two buddies who’d been in the trenches together.

As candles were passed out, a handsome older gentleman asked if he could light his candle from mine. He was Matt’s grandfather. He proudly told me that, two years before, his then-twenty-five-year-old grandson had been promoted from assistant manager at the Fuel Fitness in Missoula to the general manager of the new Kalispell store.

Soon after Matt had started his new job, Grandpa drove 120 miles from Missoula to surprise him. He told the clerk at the front desk he needed to see the manager because he had complaints. Matt hurried out from his office, concerned about an unhappy customer, only to recognize his grandfather, the prankster.

At last, the crowd thinned around Will, the Good Samaritan hero, and I went over to him.

His fast, courageous action stopped the shooter. If Will hadn’t acted, who knows how large the scale of the tragedy might have been with a building full of potential targets.

I said, “Thank you for what you did.”

He doesn’t know me. I don’t know him. But, in the instant our eyes met, we both recognized the life-changing enormity of Matt’s horrific murder on family, friends, coworkers, gym patrons, neighbors, and the entire community that had once been our safe little town.

Will started to shake hands but instead grabbed me in a hug.

We held on tight for a long time.

The life we knew was forever changed.


Correction: the instigator did not die as I had previously been told. According to the Daily Interlake newspaper:

Kalispell Police Chief Doug Overman said his agency would not release the suspected killer’s name until formal charges are filed. Overman said the department’s case was submitted to the Flathead County Attorney’s Office on Tuesday.

County Attorney Travis Ahner had a brief comment on the investigation.

“Our office is reviewing the initial investigative reports from this incident that have been submitted by the Kalispell Police Department,” Ahner said. “They have kept us updated throughout the incident and ensuing investigation, and I’m confident that the matter is being handled thoroughly and appropriately.”

First Page Critique: Using Setting And Action To Inject Suspense

By PJ Parrish

Well, this First Page submission is a little more in my bailiwick than ones I’ve been doing of late. I got my start in romance, segued into the more generalized “women’s fiction” and ended up in suspense. I’m in my comfort zone. And I like anything involving armadillos. So, let’s take a look.

How To Eat An Armadillo
Chapter One, Hank and Betty

She had to keep walking. The afternoon sun threw a blast of heat onto the black asphalt and bounced it up into her face and neck, smothering her with a blanket of misery. Aggravated by the continuing soreness in her foot, Marley was determined to find some shade so she could sit down someplace and untie her boot to relieve the pain. It felt bruised and achey. It never healed right after the accident years ago. She didn’t want to be on the ground when a car came by even though there wasn’t much traffic on this old Texas country road. Marley figured it would be a while before she could thumb it and hitch a ride heading west. She didn’t want to stop just yet, risking being caught off guard by limping or sitting down. Any sign of weakness could invite trouble.

This way of life had gotten tougher over the years. Older now and thick in the middle, she didn’t attract the drivers like she used to do. In the past, they’d hit the brakes pretty quick when they saw the sweet young thing sticking out her thumb for a ride. Marley’d made a life out of hitching rides. She got into pretty much every vehicle that ever stopped for her, trucks, cars, RVs, and trailers. Young men, crazy families, lonely women, and sorry-ass old men. The worst of course was that coven of ‘nasty people,’ as she called them. The ones who wanted to put their gritty hands, mouths, and objects on her or in her. It made her feel slimy and dirty when they touched her. They’d all changed her. She was a good girl until the thing happened. Every ride was a risk.

Sometimes she felt her life was hanging in a thread, like a spider on a web in a hailstorm. Vague, disturbing memories crept into the crevices of her mind, shielding her consciousness, shoving her into this solitary journey. She didn’t know if she was running from them or to them. Once in a while she wondered what could’ve made her life different, made her different.

No use thinking about that.

She had to keep walking and get out of this blistering heat.

Better to keep my head up and stay alert. One foot after the other.

She’d shake her right foot every few steps, trying to shake off the pain.


First off, I’m intrigued enough to keep reading. I already like the protagonist, although we can only assume Marley is, indeed, the main character. Keep in mind she could be a potential victim here. Always hard to tell in only 400-plus words. But given that the writer has invested in some backstory so early here, I’m guessing Marley’s the protag.

I like that the writer has plopped Marley right down in a bad situation. Extreme heat, a lonely Texas road, and a sorta kinda vague feeling that she has already recently endured something — I read that from her hurt foot. To say nothing of  bigger trauma at the hands of a “coven.”  So, yes, I’d read on.

There is also some nice but not over-done backstory here. We are told she’s been a vagabond for a long time and that makes me wonder why. Wondering why a character had gotten to a certain point can be an effective launching pad for your story. Also we are told she was the victim (as a “good girl” no less) of a coven of “nasty people.”  So she’s damaged goods in a sense. Which is also an effective device for future character development. I barely know her but I already want to root for her. So, good job, writer.

On a pure craft note, the writing itself is solid, direct and unpretentious. Everything is clearly detailed, the physical movements, the thoughts. Well done.


Can this be improved? Is there a way to ratchet the tension? I think so. This may only go toward style, and others who weigh in might think this opening is fine as it is. But I’m going to suggest two things for the writer:

  1. Give me a bit more sense of place and atmosphere. I sound like a broken record in my First Pagers because I am always asking the writers to not neglect their settings. Our writer tells us we are in Texas, on an “old country road.” I’ve been to Dallas. That’s all I know of Texas. Other than the old movie Giant. So I’m going to ask the writer to take me there with some select description. I don’t want a lot. Just enough to make me smell, see and even hear this pace. WHY? Not just because I like description but because when it’s done well, it enhances suspense and helps establish character. More on this in a moment.
  2. I’d like to see the writer SHOW me Marley’s mood and backstory, rather than TELL me. What do we know from these 400 or so words: Marley is tired and achy as she walks a Texas road. She’s got a bad history hitching. And one particular episode with the “nasty people” changed her in a fundamental way — she was a “good girl” ie an innocent and now she is not.  I’ll get back to this.

Setting: I love the potential of this desolate opening. But what does it look like? You TELL me only that it’s “lonely.” Use your writerly skills to SHOW me what this loneliness looks like, feels like. Is the sky that crushing bright blue you get in a desert? (I always feel claustrophobic in wide open arid spaces). Are there thunderheads building? Is the air so dry your nose bleeds? Does that asphalt road reel out like a dry black ribbon leading to nowhere? And you need to be more specific geographically — are we in the flat nothingness of the panhandle or the scrublands of the Mexican border or the hill country? “Texas” means nothing to a reader.  Be specific.  And make it dovetail with Marley’s state of mind! Make the setting MEAN SOMETHING.  The fact that you chose to drop Marley in this place tells me you KNOW it’s important. So make it come alive.

Showing instead of telling. Marley’s backstory is great, but it’s your only source of tension right now. I know you want to stress that no one is coming by to pick her up, but nothing is really happening here. It’s all Marley thinking, mainly about her past.  You need some action here, which can then TRIGGER backstory. What if you use a passing car or truck to create some action? A fancy RV goes by and doesn’t stop for her. That can trigger a memory. A car stops and a creepy guy wants to give her a ride but she tells him she’d rather walk. (Dialogue is action!) And then maybe a beat up truck chugs by, slows down and Marley gets a good look at the occupants and THAT triggers the awful seminal memory of the “nasty people.” See what I am trying to do? I’d like you to consider converting mere memory, thoughts and backstory into action.

Especially because you are using hitchhiking as an existential device. You TELL us that all her life Marley had gotten “into pretty much every vehicle that ever stopped for her.”  Which is a helluva metaphor for her life, no? But she’s not young anymore. She’s thickened around the middle, as you so greatly put it, but she’s no longer as thick in the head. I have to hope she doesn’t get into every vehicle now because she got into one once that changed her forever, no? Make us feel this inner struggle for this woman.

Okay, let me do a quick line edit. Not much, because your submission is pretty clean.

She had to keep walking. I like this opening line because it captures her near desperate mood and I suspect sums up her life thus far. The afternoon sun threw a blast of heat onto the black asphalt and bounced it up into her face and neck, smothering her with a blanket of misery. This is telling us she’s miserable. Find ways to show us. Aggravated by the continuing soreness in her foot, More telling. Why not have her stop, take off a boot and show us a blistered foot? Marley was determined to find some shade this is why you need to describe where we are. Are there some trees in the distance? so she could sit down someplace and untie her boot to relieve the pain. It felt bruised and achey. It never healed right after the accident years ago. Nice dollop of backstory; makes me want to read on. She didn’t want to be on the ground when a car came by even though there wasn’t much traffic on this old Texas country road. Where are we? Marley figured it would be a while I have to wonder why she chose this road if she knew her chances of getting a ride were nil. before she could thumb it and hitch a ride heading west. She didn’t want to stop just yet, risking being caught off guard by limping or sitting down. Any sign of weakness could invite trouble. I like this line because it insinuates tension but it needs some context. Has her long experience hitching taught her this? You can do so much more with your hitchhiking metaphor. 

This way of life had gotten tougher over the years. Older now and thick in the middle, she didn’t attract the drivers like she used to do. great line. You’re hinting at her age. In the past, they’d hit the brakes pretty quick when they saw the sweet young thing You missed a great opportunity to tell us what she looks like! How about “the men especially would hit the brakes when they saw the leggy redhead in cutoff jeans sticking out her thumb for a ride. Marley’dawkward. Just go with Marley had made made a life out of hitching rides. She got into pretty much every vehicle that ever stopped for her, trucks, cars, RVs, and trailers. Young men, crazy families, lonely women, and sorry-ass old men. The worst of course was that coven of ‘nasty people,’ as she called them. The ones who wanted to put their gritty hands, mouths, and objects on her or in her. Eww in a good way since you made me want to know more. Can we be a tad more elegant and visceral in the construction: “The ones who wanted to put their wet hands and mouths on her and those sharp objects in her. (Don’t pull punches with the nasty people as it is your best source of interest and tension.) It made her feel slimy and dirty when they touched her. They’d all changed her. She was a good girl until the thing I would cap this since it’s seminal — The Thing. happened. Every ride was a risk. Every ride AFTER THAT was a risk? Clarify. And because The Thing was so life-changing, why didn’t it change her behavior? You might want to briefly allude to this. Otherwise it implies she learned nothing from her encounter with the nasty people. 

Sometimes she felt her life was hanging in a thread, like a spider on a web in a hailstorm. A nice spider metaphor but again, you’re telling us a lot and showing us little. Vague, disturbing memories crept into the crevices of her mind, shielding her consciousness, shoving her into this solitary journey. This line sounds great but what does it mean? Are you refering to the nasty people? You told us in previous graph she vividly remembers the feel of their hands and mouths and the objects she was violated with, but now the memories are “vague”? Be precise. She didn’t know if she was running from them or to them. Once in a while she wondered what could’ve made her life different, made her different. Also not clear to me what you mean here. Again, the memories appear to be of the nasty people episode in her life and I can understand why her vagabond existence is an escape FROM that. But why did you say she is “running to them?” 

No use thinking about that.

She had to keep walking and get out of this blistering heat.

Better to keep my head up and stay alert. One foot after the other. There’s that metaphor again!

She’d shake She shook her right foot every few steps, trying to shake off two shakes in one sentence. the pain.

Okay, brave writer. I need you to know that I really liked this. The set up is fresh and full of potential tension. I like Marley and want to know more about her and her past journey — to say nothing of what lies ahead for her. Just ground her in the setting more and sort out her feelings about the nasty people coven and what they did to wound her. And find a way to use action in the place of mere thinking and remembering. You’ve got a really good start here. Keep going — one foot in front of the other.