Situational Awareness

I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination. –Jimmy Dean

* * *

Did you know the deadliest aviation accident in history happened on the ground? Yes, you read that correctly. It occurred in 1977 when two 747’s collided in dense fog on a runway in the Canary Islands. Here’s how it happened:

An incident at the airport on Gran Canaria Island had diverted aircraft to the smaller Los Rodeos Airport on Tenerife Island. The Los Rodeos Airport had only one runway and an adjacent parallel taxiway with several smaller taxiways connecting the two. Because of the increase in aircraft that had landed at Los Rodeos, several aircraft were parked on  the taxiway.

Two 747’s were lined up at one end of the taxiway, ready to depart. A KLM aircraft was to be first, followed by a PanAm flight. Because of the wind direction, each aircraft would have to move from its current position to the opposite end of the runway, but they couldn’t use the main taxiway because it was blocked by other aircraft.

An air traffic controller in the Los Rodeos tower instructed the KLM plane to taxi down the runway to the end and turn 180° in preparation for takeoff. While the KLM plane was taxiing, the controller told the PanAm plane to taxi on the same runway (which would put it behind the KLM) and then exit at a connecting taxiway. That way, the PanAm plane would be off the runway before the KLM started its takeoff roll.

Because of the fog, the crews of the two planes could not see each other, and the air traffic controller could not see the planes. They were relying on accurate communication to guide their movements. If the crews of both planes had obeyed the controller’s instructions, the accident would not have happened.

The KLM completed its taxi and turning maneuver and was positioned at the end of the runway. Now, an aircraft must have specific clearance from ATC before starting its takeoff roll. The tower never gave the KLM flight clearance to take off, but the captain of the KLM plane thought he had been given the okay. Because of his misunderstanding and his inability to see clearly, the giant 747 began barreling down the runway, unaware that the other plane was in its path.

The takeoff plane was traveling at approximately 160 mph when the crew spotted the other plane dead ahead. They were only one hundred meters apart. There was no time to stop or swerve to avoid the other plane. The captain of the takeoff plane pulled the nose up sharply in an effort to “leapfrog” over the other one. He didn’t make it. The lower part of the KLM aircraft struck the PanAm plane and crashed onto the runway, exploding in a huge fireball.

Although the crews of both planes were experienced, five hundred and eighty-three people died in that accident. All the people on the KLM flight perished, and most of the passengers on the PanAm plane also died. And it happened because the captain of the KLM plane lacked “situational awareness”, or the ability to fully understand his environment. He acted on an assumption that the runway was clear. He was wrong.

* * *

Situational awareness applies to many aspects of life, not just flying. Fortunately for authors, lack of such an awareness will not endanger our lives, but it just might endanger our livelihoods!

So what is situational awareness for writers? Most writers (I hope) know what they want out of writing. It may be fame, financial success, independence, self-fulfillment, a way to touch other people’s lives, or just the experience of writing a very good book. But in order to achieve his/her goals, the writer has to know what the current landscape is. After all, if you don’t know where you are, how can you figure out how to get where you’re going?

If you’re a pilot, you depend on the air traffic controller to direct your flight. When you drive, you may use your car’s GPS system to get you to your destination. For those of us who are new to publishing, we rely on experts in the field to lead us. Add to that the notion that the publishing world keeps shifting beneath our feet, it’s more important than ever to be well-informed.

When I began writing my first novel, I understood early on that I needed an editor/mentor to help guide me. Imagine my surprise when she told me my omniscient narrator was out of style and I’d have to take a different approach. After I got over my “Well, it’s my book and that’s the way I want to do it” reaction, I realized I didn’t understand the big picture of where I was in this new world. I needed a map.

Fortunately for me, the first two resources that were recommended to me were Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Along with my editor, these books laid the groundwork for my moving forward.

Luckily, authors have an abundance of good information in craft books, podcasts, blogs, and a semi-infinite number of online resources. The information is there. We just have to take advantage of it.

Whatever methods you use to get you where you want to go, best wishes for a successful journey and a happy landing!

* * *

So TKZers: What are your writing goals? What tools do you use to get you to your destination? Books? Blogs? Podcasts? Courses?

* * *

Private pilot Cassie Deakin has her feet firmly planted in the air. But when she lands on the ground and has to help disentangle a murder mystery, the landscape isn’t nearly so friendly. 

Buy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google Play, or Apple Books.



Cautionary Tale in the Zone or Flow State

This is a cautionary tale of how “the zone” or flow state can skew reality and common sense.

Several years ago, I turned the sunroom into my office. All the windows allow me a panoramic view of “Animal Planet,” the lower level of the yard where I feed my crows, ravens, jays, cardinals, barn birds, squirrels, chippies, and anyone else who needs an easy meal.

It’s my happy place.

For years, I dreaded winter. The cold weather meant I had to move my office into the spare bedroom, because my converted office had no heat. That changed with the installation of a mini split, an electrical unit for heat and AC. But they can only handle so much.

Here in New Hampshire, the recent temps plummeted to single digits with “feels like” temperatures well below zero. It’s a big ask for a mini split. But I’m stubborn, so I bundle up in warm clothes and write for as long as possible before I must grab my MacBook and head into the living room for the rest of the day.

Yesterday (as of this writing), we had one of the coldest days we’ve had all winter. Downright frigid in my office, with frost crystalized around the windows. The mini split coughed out bursts of heat in between shutdowns to gain its bearings. Didn’t matter that I cranked the thermostat to 76 degrees.

The unit basically told me to pound sand. “Be happy with what I give you.”

Fair enough.

I’m at a point in the WIP where I’ve reached total obsession. You know that point in every project where things gel easier, words flow, excitement builds, milestones/goalposts whip by with less effort? Uh-ha, that’s the place. I’ve also had two scenes rolling around my head for days—weeks?—but it wasn’t time to write them yet.

There’s nothing wrong with jumping ahead to write a specific scene. Sometimes, I do the same. My preference is to let the scenes simmer inside me till they reach a boiling point. If my and my character’s obsession align, all that pent-up anticipation transfers to the page.

If you haven’t experienced this mild form of psychological torture, it’s effective. At least, it is for me.

Ahem. Anyway…

When my husband left for work at 4:30 a.m., I ventured into my office with a hot tea and the expectation that I’d only write at my desk till sunrise, then I’d snuggle up by the wood stove with my MacBook.

The first time I noticed the clock it read 10:30 a.m. But I was mid-scene. I couldn’t switch to my MacBook now. If I’m on a roll, I’ll never mess with the mojo that got me there.

Yes, I know how superstitious that sounds. Don’t we all have a few weird writing quirks?

The next time I glanced up from the screen, the clock read 2:30 p.m. But again, I was midway through another scene and not willing to risk losing momentum. At this point, I was also super high on craft and probably not in any condition to make decisions about my well-being, with serotonin, adrenaline, and dopamine coursing through my system. 😉

There I stayed in a suspended state of euphoria till the sun lowered toward the horizon. And I marveled at the pink sky interspersed with violet hues.

All my animal pals returned to their burrows, trees, and nests, the lower level now devoid of wildlife.

Still, I ignored the darkness swallowing daylight, my complete focus on the screen, my fingers barely able to keep up with the enticing hum of neurons firing.

When my husband returned from running errands after work, he strode into my cold, dark office. “Step away from the desk, honey. Now. That heater shut off hours ago.”

“It did?”

“Must’ve. It’s freezing in here.”

“Is it?”

I never once felt cold. Not once. I was so immersed in my story world, and drunk on intoxicating hormones, I left New Hampshire before dawn. All day I’d been chasing bad guys through the woods of Montana, dodging bullets and encounters with predators. I laughed. I cried. I feared. I rejoiced. I experienced the entire spectrum of emotions right alongside my characters from dawn to dusk.

It wasn’t till I strolled into the warm living room that I felt the first pang of stiffness, muscle aches, and joint pain.

What can we learn from this, kiddies?

There are worse ways to die. Kidding.

Sort of.

Clear Takeaways

  • Don’t sacrifice your wellbeing, or safety.
  • The human body needs blood flow. Get up and move.
  • The mind is a beautiful place. Take good care of it.
  • You only get one life. Don’t sacrifice a second.
  • Lastly, take the time to admire the natural beauty around you, like sunrises and sunsets.

Do I regret it?

The correct answer is yes, but I don’t. Not one bit. Those chapters rock. 😉 Do as I say, not as I do.

Have you ever gotten “lost” while writing? Tell us about it.

Are Writing Contests Worth It?

Photo credit: Danny Howe-Unsplash

by Debbie Burke


I’ll confess right up front. I like writing contests. A lot. 

They’re not for everyone but they’ve helped my career.

Why enter writing contests? Here are six reasons:

  1. Contests are incentives to finish your work and submit it to the outside world;
  2. Some offer valuable critique and feedback;
  3. Encouragement, recognition, and validation;
  4. Money and/or prizes;
  5. Awards help marketing;
  6. Intangible rewards.

Writers are often timid about sending their stories out into the world.

Contests however aren’t quite as scary as cold-submitting to agents and editors. You pay an entry fee and judges read your short story, novel excerpt, or screenplay. Some contests offer critiques to improve your craft and pinpoint what needs work.

If you don’t win, heck, neither did most other entrants so it’s not that humiliating.

Photo credit: Museums Victoria-Unsplash

If you do win, terrific! That recognition boosts confidence and increases credibility when you approach agents and publishers.

There are many reputable contests, but others are questionable or downright dodgy. 

Please note: contests mentioned in this post are not endorsements or recommendations.

Contests may be opportunities for the sponsor to expand their mailing list, offering their advertising and marketing services.

Some competitions require the author to give up all rights to their work. What happens if you create a character who later becomes a merchandising goldmine? Depending on contest terms, your earnings may be limited to a  one-time cash prize with no rights to future royalties. Victoria Strauss’s article cites a contest that solicits writers who want to become Manga scriptwriters. She writes:

Copyright surrender in a work-for-hire situation isn’t necessarily a “beware”, as long as the contract terms aren’t exploitative and you understand the implications of what you’re agreeing to.

In this case, however, the one-time money prize is the sole compensation you’ll receive for your copyright transfer, from which [the sponsor] can then profit indefinitely. Be aware also that if you win and your script does not get developed into a series, [sponsor] will still own your work. Winning, therefore, has potential benefits–but also potential costs.

Before entering, check out contests with reliable sources like Writer Beware, The Write Life, Poets & Writers, ProWritingAid (this list is a year old and may be out of date), Kindlepreneur, Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

Run a Google search entering “[name of contest] scam” and look for red flags.

Before entering, always, always, always read the fine print.

What about entry fees? They typically range from free to $100+.

High entry fees raise questions:

  • Is the contest’s purpose to recognize excellence?
  • Or is this another scheme to take advantage of writers?

Valid reasons for higher fees are:

  • Pay honorariums to judges;
  • Fund prizes;
  • Support nonprofit organizations that help writers.

Research the contest, then use your own judgment whether or not the fee is worth it.

On the other end of the spectrum, “free” isn’t necessarily free.

You’ve seen the ads in magazines and online popups. Aspiring writers, especially poets, are seduced by dreams of publication and thousands of dollars in prizes.

Reality check: nobody, nowhere, nohow pays big bucks for poetry.

But it doesn’t cost anything so why not?

When you enter these contests, sponsors are thrilled to notify you that your outstanding poem was one of a select few that will be featured in their anthology. And…a beautiful gold-embossed hardcover with your published poem only costs $59.95. You can proudly pass this heirloom down to your grandchildren. In fact, buy a copy for each grandchild! And the rest of your family, and friends, and neighbors, and coworkers, and the mail carrier…

You get the idea. Such contests have endured for generations. Why? Because they make money from the dreams of writers who are hungry to be published.

Many legitimate contests are out there. Here’s the Urban Writer’s list of most prestigious awards.

Contests affiliated with writing organizations and conferences can be great career springboards because judges are often agents and editors. Examples:

Speaking of judges, here’s a little-known trick to give you insight into contests.

Volunteer to be a judge.

You don’t have to be Margaret Atwood or Dean Koontz to judge. Some writing organizations actively solicit their members to be volunteer judges. If you are a member of a group, you may qualify.

Reading and assessing entries takes a lot of time. Some contests pay small honorariums.

A few contests I’ve judged are Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Pikes Peak Writers, Authors of the Flathead Student contest, etc. Several TKZers have judged the Edgars, Agathas, and Nebulas. Please chime in with your experience.

As a judge, you’ll receive score sheets of criteria that show exactly what qualities and skills contests are looking for. Not coincidentally, those are the same qualities and skills editors and agents seek.

Scoring may be done numerically, by written critiques, or a combination of both.

As a judge, you gain a much broader perspective than the writer’s often-narrow point of view.

After reading a few entries, you notice a wide disparity among them, ranging from:

  • Downright awful, sloppy ones that weren’t even run through spellcheck;
  • Grammar? I don’t need no stinkin’ grammar;
  • Needs work but shows promise;
  • Professionally presented with competent writing skills but not compelling or imaginative;
  • A very few are OMG WOW!!!

Reading entries gives you a taste of what editors and agents go through every day when reviewing submissions. That added insight will help you pitch and submit more effectively.

Especially study the OMG WOWs. Figure out what the author did and how they did it. Learn from their strengths. Analyze how they handle pacing, point of view, and critical scenes. What makes their voice special and unique? How do they create a character you’re eager to spend time with and get to know better?

Then apply those lessons to your own writing.

My personal experience with contests began in the 1990s, when I entered the Colorado Gold contest, sponsored by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. I won the mystery category. As a result, an agent at the conference offered representation. Although we later parted ways and that book was never published, winning the contest was a major boost for my career that led to freelance work, editing jobs, and great friendships (more about intangible rewards in a minute).

In 2016, I entered the contest sponsored by the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. My thriller, Instrument of the Devil, won the mystery/suspense category.

Momentum from that propelled me to enter the Kindle Scout contest, sponsored by Amazon. Book excerpts were posted online, and readers voted for ones they wanted to see published. IOTD was selected. I received an advance and Kindle Press published the book that became a bestseller in Women’s Adventure. I

I was on my way to fame and fortune, right?

Uh, no. A few months later, Amazon closed down the Scout contest and the Kindle Press imprint was shuttered, leaving me orphaned.

But I’ll always remember they gave me that opportunity and I’m grateful.

My other books have been finalists for the Eric Hoffer award (Flight to Forever) and (Until Proven Guilty).

Can you tell I like contests?

Most recently, I entered my latest thriller Deep Fake Double Down in the BookLife Prize contest sponsored by Publisher’s Weekly for indie books.

The contest receives hundreds of entries in five categories: general fiction, romance, YA, sci-fi/fantasy/horror, and mystery/thriller. Entry fee of $119 is high but includes a critique that authors are free to use for their own promotion.

The grand prize is $5000. Finalists in each category receive a $1000 marketing package.

Photo credit: Joyful-Unsplash


In November, Deep Fake Double Down advanced from quarterfinals to semifinals. Yaay!

Then in December I learned DFDD was the mystery/thriller finalist. BookLife magazine featured interviews with each of the genre finalists.

Although I don’t generally count my chickens until they’re fried, I started to fantasize about how I’d spend $5000. Hire a publicist for dreaded marketing. Go on book tours. Attend Thrillerfest in NYC.



Deep Fake Double Down didn’t win the grand prize. The winner was Downpour, a horror novel by Christopher Hawkins. I just read it and it’s beautifully written, compelling, and terrifying, Congratulations, Chris!

Bu I gotta confess a little envy. I really would’ve liked to attend Thrillerfest.

However, I’ll still receive the $1000 marketing package. In the long run, that might be more valuable since I need all the help I can get with marketing.

Now, about those intangible rewards I mentioned earlier. Through contests, I’ve met writers who became friends, made lasting contacts with editors and agents, received invitations to speak, etc. When you put your work out in the world, you never know where it may take you.

Back in the ’90s when my book was a finalist for Colorado Gold, I flew to Denver for my first Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference. At that time, it was biggest writing event I’d ever attended. I was intimidated, not knowing a soul among 400+ attendees. 

One of the anonymous judges had scored my book a perfect 10. At the conference, I learned her name was Julie Kaewert, author of the Alex Plumtree series and a novelization of The Avengers movie. She graciously introduced me to many fellow mystery authors and her critique buddies who made me feel welcome and right at home.

At the banquet dinner, winners were announced in various categories and all received applause.

Then my name was announced. Wild whoops, hollers, and whistles erupted from tables full of my new friends.

I turned redder than the tomatoes on the salad.

I still cherish the memory.

From that contest, close friendships were born that endure to this day. Several became trusted critique partners and beta readers.

Contests give me much-needed reassurance that writing is worthwhile in spite of disappointments and setbacks. 

Are contests good for you? Enter a couple and find out. Then come back to TKZ and share your news.

A big thank you to Elaine Viets who suggested this post!


TKZers: What contests have you entered? Did they change your writing? Which contests do you recommend?


Read the mystery/thriller finalist for the BookLife Prize at this link.

Who Is In Control of What You Do?

It’s no secret that I’m slightly obsessed with the brain. Okay, okay, it’s a full-blown obsession, but it’s such a fascinating organ!

The other day, I watched a neuroscience documentary (like I often do). One episode asked the question: Who is in control of what you do? The neuroscientist then said…

“Every action you take, every decision you make, every belief you hold is driven by parts of your brain that you have no access to. We call this hidden world the unconscious, and it runs much more of your life than you would ever imagine.”

Shocking, right? The entire episode blew my mind (no pun intended) and drove me down a rabbit hole of research. What I discovered shows just how many superpowers we writers possess.

Let’s dig in…

The conscious you, or conscious awareness, makes up the smallest part of your brain. The conscious brain believes it’s in full control of the body, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

Have you ever driven home and not remembered how you got there? One minute, a thought crosses your mind. And the next thing you know, you’re turning on to your street. It’s a wild feeling that we write off with, “I’ve driven this route so many times, the car knows its way.” But the truth is, this sensation occurs because the action is being done unconsciously and automatically. And somehow, you arrive home without harm.

Through clinical trials, Freud discovered that beneath the surface of each of us lies a swirling sea of hidden motivations, drives, and desires. The way we think and feel and act is profoundly influenced by our unconscious mind.

As the twentieth century progressed, many others dove into the brave new world of neuroscience. They were trying to uncover how much control the unconscious brain really has, but what they soon discovered was far stranger than anyone could have predicted.

In the 1960s, Eckhart Hess ran several experiments. In one, he asked men to look at women’s faces and make snap judgments about them.

  • How kind does she look?
  • How selfish or unselfish is she?
  • How friendly or unfriendly is she?
  • How attractive is she?

What the men didn’t know was how Hess manipulated the experiment. In half the photos, the women’s eyes were artificially dilated. Same women but with different sized pupils. Dilated eyes are, among other things, a biological sign of sexual arousal. This manipulation was meant to influence the choices made by the men, but without them being aware of it.

Can you guess the outcome?

The men found the women with dilated eyes more attractive. Here’s the important part. None of the men noticed the dilated pupils in the photographs, nor did any of the men know about the biological sign of sexual readiness. But somehow, their brains knew.

Hess and his team ran deeply evolutionary programs to steer the men toward the right sort of mate (the feminist in me is holding back here; please do the same). The subjects’ brains analyzed and recognized tiny details in the photos and then acted upon them. All of this occurred without a flicker of conscious awareness.

This type of experiment revealed fundamental knowledge about how the brain operates. The job of this organ is to gather information from the world, then steer appropriate behavior. And it makes absolutely no difference whether you (your conscious awareness) are involved. Most of the time, you’re not. Most of the time, you’re not even aware of the decisions being made on your behalf.

Check out these findings:

  • If you’re holding a warm cup of coffee, you’ll describe your relationship to your mother as closer than if you’re holding an iced coffee.
  • When you’re in a foul-smelling environment, you’ll make harsher moral decisions.
  • If you sit next to a bottle of hand sanitizer, it’ll shift your political opinions a little toward the conservative side, because it reminds your brain of outside threats.

Every day we’re influenced in countless ways by the world around us. And most of this flies completely under the radar of our conscious awareness. Though clueless to us, the unconscious brain is continually reacting to the outside world and making decisions on our behalf.

What separates us from zombie-like beings?

Even when we’re on autopilot, if we come across something we weren’t expecting, our conscious mind is called into action to figure out if this new thing is a threat or opportunity. It’s one of the jobs of consciousness—to assess what’s going on and make sense of the situation. When our expectations are violated, our conscious mind is summoned to work out the appropriate reaction.

But reacting is not its only mission. The conscious brain plays a vital role in resolving internal conflict among the brain’s many automatic sub-systems, each working on its own task.

Take, for example, if you’re hungry but you just started a diet to drop a few holiday pounds. This is when the conscious brain needs to rise above the unconscious and make an executive decision on what to do. Consciousness is the arbiter of conflicting motivations in the brain, with a unique vantage point that no other part of the brain has access to. It’s a way for trillions of cells to see themselves as a unified whole.

For writers, our unconscious brain stores our superpowers.

Our unconscious is capable of truly remarkable feats if we stay out of its way. Therein lies the rub. We can train our unconscious to do many skills automatically, and some of them can seem almost superhuman. Through intense practice, we can harness the brain’s ability to run on autopilot to achieve almost anything.

See where I’m goin’ with this? Note the words “through intense practice.” Meaning, the more we practice, the more we hardwire our brains to work on autopilot. And yes, that includes writing. Those who write daily or several times per week have an easier time than writers who step away from the keyboard for weeks or months at a time.

We also enter the zone more often.

When our conscious awareness relinquishes control to our unconscious brain, we enter the flow state—a form of brain activity experienced by different kinds of people, from elite athletes and meditation experts to professional writers and musicians. Many of whom call this state “the zone,” which arrives during total emersion in a task. In flow states, neural circuits run without conscious mind interference. Our perception clears, our unconscious awareness heightens, and feel-good chemicals flood the brain, which allows for intense focus and gratification.

Thanks to neuroscience, a distinct pattern in the brain emerges when we’re in the zone.

When we first enter flow, dopamine increases attention, information flow, and pattern recognition. It’s essentially a skill booster.

Norepinephrine speeds up the heart rate, muscle tension, and respiration. It triggers a glucose response to give us more energy, increase arousal, attention, neural efficiency, and emotional control, thus producing a high.

Endorphins (rooted from the word “endogenous,” meaning naturally internal to the body) relieve pain and induce pleasure. Strangely, these chemicals function like opioids, with 100 times the power of morphine.

Anandamide (stemming from the Sanskrit word for “bliss”) is an endogenous cannabinoid and feels like the psychoactive effect of marijuana. In flow states, anandamide elevates mood, relieves pain, dilates blood vessels, and aids in respiration. It also amplifies lateral thinking—the ability to link ideas together.

At the end of a flow state, serotonin floods the brain with an after-glow effect. This leaves us with a feeling of bliss and only occurs once we exit the zone.

Unlike many ordinary people, writers dip in and out of the zone on a regular basis. Did I just call us extraordinary? You bet I did! We have a pretty cool superpower. Don’tcha think?

Tips to Achieving Flow

  1. Balance challenge and skill.

If you’ve never written nonfiction, for example, you may find it difficult to enter the zone because your conscious awareness is stressed out. You’re too afraid of making a mistake to enter flow.

If something isn’t challenging enough, you’ll get bored easily. In turn, so will your reader. Not only will adding plenty of conflict improve your plot, but you’ll enter the zone quicker while writing.

  1. Establish clear goals.

I will write for three hours. I will write at least 1000 words today. I will write two scenes or one chapter. By establishing a daily writing goal, it relieves the pressure of having to finish the entire first draft by a certain date. How you choose to establish those goals is up to you.

  1. Reduce distraction.

You will never enter the zone if you’re checking for social media notifications or email every ten minutes. When it’s time to write, write. Save play time and the inbox for later.

  1. Stop multitasking.

Have you ever turned down the radio while searching for a specific house number or highway exit? You’re instinctively helping your brain to concentrate on a visual task. For more on why multitasking is so difficult and why we should avoid it before a writing session, see my 2021 post entitled Can Multitasking Harm the Brain?

  1. Don’t force it.

Some days, you’ll enter the zone. Other days, you won’t. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. You’ll still produce words and make progress.

  1. Enjoy the process.

You won’t enter flow unless you’re enjoying yourself. Simple as that. If you view writing as a chore, it may be time to step away from the WIP for a while. Yes, penning a novel is hard work, but it also should be enjoyable. If it’s not, you may want to ask yourself why you do it.

What were your biggest takeaways from this research? Are you surprised that we live on autopilot most of the time?

One New Year’s Resolution

by Debbie Burke


Welcome back to another year in The Kill Zone!

Yesterday, Kay compiled a great collection of various new year’s resolutions.

Today, I’d like to share a different slant on resolutions, courtesy of bestselling author Eric Barker. For years, I’ve followed Eric’s “Barking Up the Wrong Tree” blog because of his witty, ironic take on human foibles.

Here’s Eric’s humorous perspective about New Year’s resolutions:

Cynically, you could see these resolutions as a yearly exercise in self-delusion. The tradition where we all collectively decide to lie to ourselves in a more structured format. Often, they’re like annual subscriptions we buy for a better version of ourselves… only to realize we’re more into the free trial.

Photo credit: Jon Tyson, Unsplash


Eric suggests we tackle this new year differently: Make ONLY ONE RESOLUTION.

That’s right. ONE RESOLUTION.

Eric kindly granted permission to share reasons why a single resolution can be effective and methods to keep that single resolution.

How can writers apply his advice? 


Photo credit: RDNE Stock Project, Pexels


Stop fantasizing: Year after year, we writers let our imaginations overload us with unrealistic fantasies. We waste energy dreaming about what we can’t possibly achieve.

I’m going to turn out as many books as James Patterson.

I’m going to score interviews on NPR, Good Morning America, and Drew’s TV book club.  

 Lofty goals but, for most of us, not likely.

Better to make one writing resolution that can you have a realistic chance of achieving.

My resolution: Publish the ninth book in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

For some writers, a goal like this is not ambitious enough; for others, it’s too much.

Before you decide on your resolution, examine your individual circumstances. Be honest. 

Do you work long hours at a stressful job? Do you have children and/or aging parents to care for?

Do you have limited physical or mental energy? Do you struggle to concentrate? Are you easily distracted?

Are you a procrastinator? Do you love the idea of writing more than you love actual writing?

After a realistic self-assessment, choose a resolution that’s not a fantasy.

Make a plan: Right now, I’m 170 pages into the above-mentioned ninth book. My goal is to release it for sale by March or April. Based on that timeline, here’s the plan:

  1. Complete the draft;
  2. Think of a title;
  3. Send the manuscript to beta readers then incorporate their suggestions;
  4. Edit;
  5. Have cover art designed;
  6. Format, upload, and proof;
  7. Do pre-release publicity.

Following a step-by-step plan means there’s a good chance I’ll achieve my resolution.

Whether your plan is three steps or 300, if you take one step at a time, you’ll eventually arrive at your destination.

Do the minimum: Eric says, “When we’re too ambitious we’re much more likely to give up altogether.”

After assessing your individual circumstances, set the bar so low, you can’t help but trip over it.

Say you’re a writer who works full-time, cares for family, and lives with long Covid. What is a realistic resolution? Write one paragraph a day. 

RDNE Stock Project, Pexels

Doesn’t sound like much until you add it up.

If a paragraph is 50 words, that’s 18,000+ words in a year. Not bad!

Most important, it’s a resolution that can be kept despite an overwhelmingly busy life. 

That doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to one paragraph. If the words are flowing, keep going. Write a page, a scene, a chapter.

At one page a day, by the end of 2024, that’s 365 pages.  


Make bad habits hard: Eric suggests erecting roadblocks to discourage bad habits. For instance, if you waste too much time on social media, delete distracting apps and shortcuts from your devices. You can still enjoy Instagram or goat yoga sites, but you’ll probably do it less often if you must first enter tedious login credentials every time.

Exception: Keep The Kill Zone readily accessible.

Make good habits easy: When Eric resolved to play his guitar more, he took it out of the closet and set it on a stand in the living room. Cutting time and effort made it easier to strum.

Make the habit of writing easy by keeping your tools accessible.

My laptop is on the dining table where I can’t possibly avoid it. If an idea occurs to me while cooking dinner, the computer is only steps away. HGTV decorators would shudder and our home won’t be featured in House Beautiful. But I get more work done than if it were in the office upstairs.

Leverage friends: Eric says, “Peer pressure can be a good thing.”

Hang out with people who encourage your resolution. Surround yourself with friends and family who will cheer you toward your goal. They pump you up when you doubt your ability or when your resolve falters. They help you over roadblocks.

Real life also includes negative peer pressure from snarky in-laws or jealous coworkers. But strive to spend less time with detractors and more time with positive influencers.

Commitment Devices: Eric’s suggestion below makes me smile because it sums up human nature so well. 

Give $100 to a trusted friend. If you stick to your resolution, you get your money back. Fail, and that money gets donated to the opposing political party’s reelection fund.

Photo credit: Jonathan Borba, Pexels

Instead of kicking off the new year with unrealistic fantasies that are doomed to fail, choose ONLY ONE RESOLUTION that you know you can keep.

Then keep it.

It’s that simple. Really.

Here’s a link to Eric’s full article.


TKZers: What is your SINGLE RESOLUTION for 2024?



Holiday gift cards burning a hole in your pocket? Please check out Deep Fake Double DownFinalist for the BookLife Prize. Sales link.

Are You Moonstruck?

For the last few days, I’ve felt off. Writing had been difficult. Words refused to flow. Pumping out a decent chapter likened to delivering a 10 lb. baby with wide shoulders and oversized head. Even my playlists didn’t match my mood.

And sure, moments of melancholy go hand-in-hand with the holidays, but that wasn’t it. So, like I often do, I turned to nature for the answer. Specifically, the ebb and flow of the Moon.

When the lunar calendar showed the waning crescent phase, I’d found my answer. We’ve done battle before, her and I.

The waning crescent means one thing: early nights. With the final stretch of this lunar cycle, it’s normal to feel exhausted by the past month and want to unwind as the New Moon approaches. It’s also a time of reflection. Perfect time for journaling and self-care.

I’ve long known how the Moon affects me. It’s undeniable. I also know my views may conflict with yours, and that’s okay. We’re writers, after all. It’s our job and passion to question the mysteries of life.

Why would I believe the Moon is responsible for my lackadaisical mood?

I’m glad you asked. 😉

Let’s first look at the composition of the human body.

According to the Journal of Biological Chemistry 158:

  • An adult human body is made up of about 60% water.
  • The brain and heart consist of 73% water.
  • Lungs are about 83% water.
  • Skin has 64% water.
  • Muscles and kidneys are 79% water.
  • Even bones are 31% water.

The above percentages vary by age, gender, and where people reside. An adult male, for example, needs about 3 liters per day of water while an adult female only needs 2.2 liters. Some of which we derive from food. Keep in mind, fat tissue doesn’t have as much water as lean tissue.

Infants are born with the most water — about 78% of their body. By their first birthday, that number decreases to about 65%.

Water serves several essential functions:

  • first acts as a building material, then provides nutrients to every cell in the body
  • regulates internal body temperature through sweating and respiration
  • metabolizes and transports carbohydrates and proteins in food to the bloodstream
  • assists in flushing waste through urination
  • acts as a shock absorber for brain, spinal cord, and fetus
  • creates saliva
  • lubricates joints

With all the water in our bodies, how could the Moon not affect us? 

If you’re still not convinced, perhaps it’ll help to understand how and why the Moon wields great power.


The Moon’s gravitational pull generates something called “the tidal force.” The tidal force causes Mother Earth — and its water — to swell on the sides closest and farthest from the Moon. These bulges of water are high tides. As the Earth rotates, our regions pass through both stages every day. If we’re in one of the bulges, we receive a high tide. If we’re not, it results in a low tide. This cycle of two high tides and two low tides occurs on almost all of the world’s coastlines. The rare exception is when the tide circles around an island, like in New Zealand.

In addition to the tides, the Moon controls time, light, and stable seasons.

For many animals, particularly birds, the Moon is essential to migration and navigation. Others will time their reproduction to coincide with the specific phases of the lunar cycle. There’s also a whole world of fascinating adaptations relating to tides and the unique properties of moonlight.

Power of Lunar Cycle

The lunar cycle changes circadian rhythms — day/night cycles driven by Earth orbiting the Sun. Human circadian rhythms are easily thrown off by jet lag or when we change the clocks. But circalunar rhythms, which are tied to lunar cycles, can also impact us.

Circalunar rhythms are difficult to discern, but they effect different types of organisms. Some animals respond to both a circadian rhythm and a lunar clock. I recently wrote an in-depth article about why animals don’t get lost that may interest you.

“The Moon has been up there as long as evolution has been taking place, and lunar rhythms are embedded in the life cycles of many organisms. The challenge is working out when the Moon truly is a factor and what is merely myth and legend.”

— Dr. Tom White, Senior Curator of Natural History Museum

Day Length

The gravitational pull of the Moon is slowing Earth’s rotation, an effect known as “tidal braking,” which increases the length of our day by 2.3 milliseconds per century. Early Earth was spinning at a much faster rate. According to computer models, we had a six-hour day 4.5 billion years ago. Since then, with the help of our Moon, the Earth’s rotation has been slowing. The result is longer days.


The giant impact that formed the Moon may have tipped the Earth and contributed to the 23.5° tilt of our North Pole. This tilt gives us our seasons.

The Moon’s gravitational pull acts like training wheels for Earth on its journey around the Sun, and keeps the axis pointed at a consistent angle. Without the Moon, the Earth’s stately progression through spring, summer, fall, and winter would have massive fluctuations.

If the Moon controls tides (with help from our Sun), time, light, and seasons, it’s naïve to think it can’t impact human life. Or maybe, you’ve never given it much thought.

Fair enough. We do live busy lives and have different interests.

A few fun facts:

  • Behaviors of several species have been linked to lunar periodicity.
  • The word “lunacy” stems from the Latin word “lunar,” which means “Moon.”

Ask your local police if crime rises during a full Moon. Many will say yes. A registered nurse friend of mine swears the nursing home goes berserk during a full Moon. Yet, neither have been scientifically proven as cold, hard facts. Doesn’t mean they aren’t true, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.

  • Some philosophers say the Moon affects human behavior and health by its gravitational pull on body fluids.

The gravitational pull is so strong, our planet’s crust is stretched by these same tidal effects on a daily basis.

Can the Moon Disrupt Sleep?

2021 study found that people fell asleep later and slept less overall on the nights before the full moon — called Moonstruck sleep. Other research suggests the full Moon may be associated with less deep sleep and increased REM (rapid eye movement) latency.

Sleep latency is the period between when you first fall asleep and when you enter the first stage of REM sleep. So, increased latency means it takes longer to reach REM sleep.

As restrictions in sleep duration have been shown to adversely affect glucose regulation and physical activity to improve glucose regulation, one could argue cardiometabolic risk factors might also be affected by the lunar phase.

Despite dismissal by many non-holistic practitioners, scientific studies show we sleep less during certain Moon cycles.

“While the sun is the most important source of light and synchronizer of circadian rhythms for almost all species, moonlight also modulates nocturnal activity in organisms ranging from invertebrate larvae to primates. Moonlight is so bright to the human eye that it is entirely reasonable to imagine that, in the absence of other sources of light, this source of nocturnal light could have had a role in modulating human nocturnal activity and sleep.


However, whether the moon cycle can modulate human nocturnal activity and sleep remains a matter of controversy. Some authors have argued against strong effects of moon phase on human behavior and biological rhythms, but recent studies have reported that human sleep and cortical activity under strictly controlled laboratory conditions are synchronized with lunar phases.”

Some people are biologically more sensitive to the lunar clock than others, along with the Moon’s alignment with astrological signs.

So, TKZers, if you’d rather snuggle up with a good book or watch a sappy Christmas movie, I grant you whatever permission you may need to go for it. When the New Moon arrives on the 13th, light up the keyboard!

I have only one question for you today. How are you, friend? 

This is my last post before our holiday break. Wishing you and yours a joyous season!




Slang Fun Facts

by Debbie Burke


The saying “two countries divided by a common language” certainly applies to slang.

American and British slang are confusing enough. Throw in Australian slang and one needs a translator with a doctorate in linguistics to interpret.

Here’s an example I recently ran across in an Aussie news story: Dob in a hoon.

Translation: to report a driver who’s reckless and dangerous.

The story reported that the Greater Shepperton City Council and police have a “Dob in a Hoon” tip line where citizens can call in tips about dangerous drivers.

Being a writer fascinated by word origins, I headed down the rabbit hole to learn about this unusual phrase.

Hoon driving means driving recklessly, quickly, and irresponsibly. It includes street racing, fishtailing, burnouts, excessive noise to draw attention of bystanders.

Digging a little deeper into origins, I discovered the word hoon was coined by Aussie author Xavier Herbert in the 1930s and means a “hooligan” or “lout.”

What about the rest of the phrase dob in?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, dob in means to “secretly tell someone in authority that someone else has done something wrong.”

Quick grammar review from Grammarly:

transitive verb needs to transfer its action to something or someone—an object. In essence, transitive means “affecting something else.”

transitive verb is one that makes sense only if it exerts its action on an object.

An intransitive verb will make sense without an object.

That makes dob in a transitive verb, where the verb action of dob in passes to the object noun hoon.

In Australian slang, dob in is comparable to the American slang terms rat out or squeal on.

The person who dobs in someone is often called a stool pigeon, canary, cheese eater, rat, informant, squealer, fink, narc.

While rooting around in the research rabbit hole, more Aussie slang sidetracked me. Here are a few examples:

If someone imbibes too much from the Bottle-O (liquor store) then gets behind the wheel, they could wind up riding in the Booze Bus (police vehicle that chases drunk drivers).

If you visit Australia, beware of the dreaded Drop Bear. This mythical beast is a carnivorous Koala-type bear that drops from trees to prey on creatures walking below.

Drop Bear attack
Photo credit: wikipedia

Aussies enjoy warning unsuspecting tourists about the Drop Bear, along with other fun Furphies (plural).

A Furphy (singular) is defined by as “a false report or improbable story; rumor.”


Furphy water cart, ca 1905

Furphy is an actual brand name for traveling water tanks and sanitary disposal carts manufactured by the Furphy family of Victoria. During World War I, soldiers gathered around Furphies to gossip and spin yarns. That led to widespread slang usage of telling a furphy.

Do you think “sanitary disposal” could have inspired the term? 


Those friendly, helpful Aussies also suggest repellants that supposedly protect from Drop Bear attacks. One method is to spread Vegemite behind the ears.

Vegemite isn’t slang but is an actual food product created and produced in Australia. It is made from leftover byproducts from brewing beer.

Here is a description of Vegemite from “It looks like tar, has the consistency of thick paste, and has a salty/malty/yeasty taste to it that sounds just a bit weird but actually works – if you don’t plaster it too much!”

Applied behind the ears, Vegemite not only protects from Drop Bears, it makes a memorable cologne that’s also edible.

Those Aussies have a wicked sense of humor.

Photo credit: Sultan 11 cc-by-sa-4.0

The Drop Bear is similar to the North American “Jackalope”, another mythical creature with origins in folklore. Imagine a cross between an antelope and a jackrabbit.

Which brings me back to rabbits and falling down the rabbit hole. 

Here’s an entertaining article by Elaine Zelby about the origins and usage of that particular slang.

TKZ emeritus Clare Langley-Hawthorne was raised in Australia. If Clare is online, maybe she’ll chime in with her favorite Aussie slang terms.


Pros of using slang in fiction:

  • Adds authenticity;
  • Adds regional color;
  • Gives deeper dimension to characters and makes them unique and memorable.


  • Slang changes with the times. Twentieth century meaning may be totally different in the 21st century;
  • The same slang can have different meanings in different cultures, causing reader confusion;
  • May require explanation to the reader. Anything that takes them out of the story can be a problem;
  • Overuse of slang is distracting and annoying.

A taste of slang in fiction goes a long way. Like Vegemite, don’t spread it too thickly.


This is my last post for 2023 before TKZ’s annual break. I’m honored to be part of this vibrant writing/reading community.

Warm wishes for a joyous holiday season with family and friends!


TKZers: How much slang do you use in your stories?

What is the most unusual slang term you’ve run across?

Do you research the origins of slang words?  

Please share a few of your favorites.




Deep fakes lead to deep trouble in Debbie Burke’s thriller, Deep Fake Double Down, BookLIfe Prize FinalistClick on the cover for the sales link. 

Something To Do …

This season of Thanksgiving calls to mind a quote by the 18th-century Scottish writer Alexander Chalmers:

“The three grand essentials of happiness are something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.”

For those of us who write, we can be grateful that the “something to do” part of that is pretty well covered.

* * *

Every now and then, a friend will stop by our home and venture into my office. They’re usually surprised at what they find there. Books are standing or lying on bookshelves in some kind of semi-organized chaos, and the three-door closet is covered with Post-it notes I’m using to plot my next book.

The desk is a riot of papers, laptops, to-do lists, notes, and more books. Whiteboards lean against walls that are covered with pictures and papers, and the back of the office door has more lists taped to it.

Invariably, someone will ask, “How do you get everything done?” The answer is simple: I don’t.

One of life’s greatest blessings is, I think, to have more to do than one can possibly get done. I’m happy to tell the story I’m working on as well as I can, aware that there are many more in the future. I’m like a kid in a magnificent toy store, captivated by the puzzle I’m trying to put together and excited by the endless supply of new and shiny artifacts yet to be tackled. I am so grateful, and I’m reminded of another wonderful and timely quote, this one by a 13th-century theologian:

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” –Meister Eckhart.

* * *

So, TKZers: Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for all the wisdom shared here over the past year!

Do you have more to do than you can ever accomplish? What things in your writing life are you grateful for?

I’ll be traveling today, but I’ll check in whenever I can to respond to comments.

* * *


Private pilot Cassie Deakin has something to do: find the culprits who assaulted her beloved uncle. But can she accomplish her mission before she becomes the next victim?  Buy it here.

Age Old Problem

By Elaine Viets

See this woman?  I’m sure you have. She’s been featured in a slew of ads. Aw, what a cute old lady.

I loathe the old bat. Her harmless cuteness stereotypes seniors and makes it easy to dismiss older people. Thanks to her, anyone over sixty seems powerless and a bit simpleminded. She may be a fine person in real life, but I don’t like how her stock photo is used.

Crazy old cranks. How about this woman known as “Cranky Martha.” You’ve seen her in the Medicare ads. Martha’s another stereotype – an old woman who grumbles about Medicare programs. Martha is denied the dignity of righteous rage. Dealing with government phone lines and websites should make anyone angry. They can eat up your whole day. But poor Martha is just another complaining, crazy coot.

Like many baby boomers, I’m old enough to get Social Security.  I’m also concerned about how older people are portrayed. Older people are cute, cranky, sexless and downright weird.

How many of these demeaning stereotypes are perpetuated in our books?

Even the language I’m using to describe these people is disrespectful: coot, crazy, old crank, old bat. All those words diminish older people.

Here are a few more stereotypes:

The old weirdo. This person is often found in cozies, dressed in loud clothes and behaving like a silly 16-year-old. Margery, the 76-year-old landlady in my Dead-End Job mysteries, skirted the edges of this stereotype. But I tried to keep her smart and sometimes downright scary.

The male version is the wacky old guy who is the hero’s sidekick, a popular Western trope. Remember Gabby Hayes, the grizzled old codger who tagged along after John Wayne, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and  Hopalong Cassidy?

The foreign old weirdo. Heaven help an old person who lives in a poor country, like this Cuban woman smoking a cigar. Photographers flock to photograph their wrinkles (apparently poor people can’t afford moisturizer). Writers condescend to them and their customs.

The old technophobe.  Yes, it’s true. Some older people have trouble with cell phones and other tech. There’s a reason for that. Parts of the brain shrink with age and communication between neurons slows. This makes it tough for some older people to learn new technology.

Some. But not all.

It’s true I still long for the return of the five-button phone in offices, but I can use a cell phone. Alan Portman, a regular reader of this blog, is my main IT person, but when I need someone local, I use a sixty-something grandfather with his own business. His brain works just fine, thank you.

Growing old disgracefully. That’s the motto for a lot of boomers. They love to tease their staid children.

The old stereotypes are outdated. Older people are not the old fogies of yesteryear. They are active, well-educated, and entrepreneurial. Empire-builder Martha Stewart was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 81.

Seventy-year-old Christie Brinkley looks damn good in a bikini.

Older people are powerful. Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg held office until her death at age 87.

So how do you portray old people in your mysteries? Are they one of these stereotypes, or realistic characters? Are your older people like Miss Marple, who are underrated because of their age, but use it to their advantage? Or are they fierce and vital?

Deadly secrets in a crypt. The Dead of Night, my 7th Angela Richman mystery, is on sale here:



Deadline Words of Wisdom

Deadlines have helped me publish. They can also stress me out if I’m not careful, as my wonderful, very patient wife can attest, and give me tunnel vision when it comes to priorities. I have a set of new deadlines now for my current work-in-progress, and am hoping to accomplish them without being unduly stressed out and still being able to participate in my various family responsibilities.

Today we take a deep dive into TKZ’s archives. Kathryn Lilley discusses deadline behaviors, Clare Langley-Hawthorne talks about setting and managing deadlines, and John Gilstrap takes us with him as he goes through a deadline crunch. As always, the full articles are date-linked from their respective excerpts.

Then I started thinking about all my other deadline behaviors that could be considered annoying, or even strange, by family and friends. My crazy-writer deadline behaviors include:

The Big Tune-out

It’s not that I deliberately don’t listen to people (Okay, sometimes it is deliberate), but I frequently tune them out. This mostly happens when I’m on a deadline, which means it happens a lot. I might even respond to someone during a conversation, but not remember it later. It’s kind of like brain on auto-pilot.

To Kill a Magpie

When I’m out and about with my husband, I frequently dive for a pen and write detailed notes about our surroundings: the full moon hovering between two palm trees at night, a bag lady sitting in a bus shelter, the timbre of silverware clatter–I take notes about anything I can use later in my writing. Inevitably, I have left my notepad at home, so I drag home notes scribbled on scraps of things: a napkin, a flyer, even the back of a business card. My husband must think he lives with a magpie.

Hair on Fire 

It’s predictable: Six weeks before any deadline, I go on a tear. This means that I’m a) Constantly hunched over the laptop, muttering, b) Setting the alarm for 4 a.m., then groaning my way to wakefulness over the course of several Snooze cycles, and c) Bounding out of bed at odd hours of the night to tap out some problem-solving idea that struck me.

I do not talk very much during this time. And when I do, it’s not pleasant.

So there it is. I could go on, but the length of the list is starting to make me feel bad about myself. I would like to feel that I’m not alone in my crazy-writer deadline syndromes. Have you any to share?

Kathryn Lilley—July 27, 2009

Deadlines make you both accountable and responsible. But what does that really mean when you aren’t as yet published? It means you know that in order to achieve your larger goal (writing the novel, getting it published etc.) you need to divide the task into manageable chunks and (here is where it gets tricky) you need to meet the deadlines you impose upon yourself. Otherwise you’re just like the billions of amateur writers whining about how ‘one day’ they will write a book but (insert excuse here…) they never seem to get around to it. In today’s post I want to deal with both publisher as well as personal deadlines.

Publisher Imposed Deadlines:

As John said in his blog post on Friday, these deadlines are pretty much inviolable. If, as the author, you miss these then there is a cascading effect on the whole publication cycle. Worse case scenario the publisher views it as a breach of contract and pulls out of the deal. Best case scenario you inconvenience a whole lot of other people. So if you do need to extend, you’d better have a pretty good excuse.

My rather strict view of deadlines also extends to how you fulfil them. I’ve heard of an author who views the submission date with her publisher with a bit of a shrug – sure, she gets them the manuscript, but she’s not too concerned about making it perfect as she knows the editor will get back to her with comments, so she views the deadline as a necessary evil and continues to work through the book even while waiting for the editor to peruse and comment upon it. I differ on this in that I go into each deal with the belief that, whatever I submit has to be as damn-near-perfect as it possible. To me this is how professionals fulfil their obligations – not with a half-hearted shrug but with a commitment to demonstrating their craft to the highest degree possible.

Of course when it comes to an authors first book, the initial draft manuscript is what was acquired but any amendments to this (based on editorial feedback) should be treated with the same level of professionalism and adherence to deadlines. If an editor doesn’t provide a deadline (which would be highly unusual) then I would request or set one – that way the author remains on track and accountable to a timetable.

So what do you do if you have to seek a deadline extension?

This is where a good agent can act on an author’s behalf to mitigate against this – but the author must still have a genuine excuse for seeking an extension given the potential impact it has on the publisher. When it comes to agents, I would also recommend setting deadlines (for the agent as well as yourself) to ensure there remains a level of responsiveness and accountability that demonstrates an author’s professionalism.

Self-Imposed Deadlines

As a professional writer I like to set myself specific goals for my WIP to keep me on track. Typically I lay out a timetable to complete certain chapters or parts of the books to ensure I don’t face the overwhelming panic of producing a novel. When the tasks ahead are in manageable chunks the path seems far less onerous (or scary). The first thing I do is also set the date I want to get the draft manuscript to my agent and then work backwards from there.

Sometimes I give my agent an initial deadline for the first 5-10 chapters and the proposed plot outline so I can get his read/feedback on the project ahead. Then I always tell him the date I propose getting the complete manuscript to him – it helps establish my own timetable as well as alerting him to my goal (and, I hope, demonstrate I am tackling it in a serious, professional manner).

As a terrible procrastinator, self-imposed deadlines are vital to keeping me on track as a professional writer.

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—March 19, 2012

One constant in my life for more than a decade now has been a September 15 deadline for the next Jonathan Grave book.  I plan my entire year around that deadline.  A second constant is a July 1 publication date for the book that was submitted the previous September 15.  That early July drop date is important because of its proximity to ThrillerFest, and the boost in publicity brought by that.  But July is also Gilstrap Beach Vacation Month, so that’s another week gone from the ten weeks leading up to my deadline.  (I bring my computer and writing pad to the beach, but if I get 1,000 words written over those seven days, I’m lucky.)

On the far side of my deadline is Joy’s and my wedding anniversary, which almost always includes an exotic trip to somewhere.  This year, it was 16 days in Scotland, commencing September 12.  That shortened my deadline by three whole days!  That means there was no possibility of overshooting the deadline by only a day or two.  It was either submit two days early or four weeks late.  In my world, we call that “motivation.”

Because I’ve been doing this for so long, I’ve figured out a system that (almost) always works.  If I can be at the 200-page mark by the opening of ThrillerFest, I can be at 70,000 words by August 1.  Given a 100,000-word manuscript length, that makes August busy but doable.  Plus, by then, I’m transitioning to the third act, which for me is the easiest to write.  I can usually have a polished first draft done by the first week in September, which leaves me 10 days or so for final revision.

This year, reality bitch-slapped me.  ThrillerFest didn’t start until July 13, easily a week later than usual, and from July 19-23, I was on the faculty of the Midwest Writers Conference in Muncie, Indiana.  When all was said and done, I’d effectively lost 16 writing days in July.

And September 12 still sat there, immovable.

I hit my 70,000-word milestone on August 8, three days after I taught an all-day seminar at the Smithsonian, and the one day after an all-day charity signing event.  Math was beginning to work against me.  I needed to write 10,000 words a week for the next three weeks in order to give me the cushion I needed for final revisions.  Sounds horrible, but doable.

Then came the long lunch with a grieving friend who reached out because he didn’t want to be alone.  And the long overdue birthday dinner with another friend.  The un-turn-downable invitation to a luxury suite at the Washington Nationals.  Let’s not forget the long-standing three-day commitment to the always-fabulous Creatures Crimes & Creativity Conference from September 8-10.

Tick and Tock were both laughing at me.  In fact, they were mocking me.

Oh, and God forbid the book actually pull itself together at 100,000 words.  Perish the thought.  The final count came in at 112,230 words, and I clicked send for Scorpion Strike on the evening of September 11, 2017.

Never in my life have I written so much in so little time.  That’s 42,230 words in what was effectively 14 writing days (as opposed to editing/revision days).  If I wrote evenly, that would be over 3,000 words per day, but that’s never how it works for me.  The last two writing days were each 6K-plus.  It was exhausting.

As I jetted off to Scotland, I fully expected to receive a polite but scolding email regarding the revisions that would be necessary.  And that was fine, because that’s what revisions are for.  Instead, the email from my agent included the phrase, “best book you’ve ever written.”  Surely, she was pulling her punches so she wouldn’t ruin my vacation.  No, she promised, she and her assistant both read it through in one long gulp, loving it the whole way.

When we returned from our trip, my editor called and told me that they were sending Scorpion Strike straight through to copy editing.  For the first time in the history of history, there would be no editorial letter.  No structural changes, no punching up of this character or toning down of that one.  Just spelling and continuity.

So . . . what the f-bomb?  How could my most hurried book turn out to be my least-flawed, in the eyes of my writer universe?  I don’t have an answer–not even close–but if I were one to be introspective about my creative process (have I mentioned that I hate that phrase?), it might be worthy of consideration.

John Gilstrap—October 11, 2017


  1. Do you find deadlines a help, a hindrance, or both?
  2. Do you have any “deadline behaviors?”
  3. Do you set self-imposed deadlines? Any advice?
  4. If you do have deadlines, how do you handle the deadline crunch?