Naming Your Baby


By Elaine Viets

I’d rather write an entire mystery than come up with a title for it. So much depends on choosing the right name for your baby: Will your title grab the reader? Describe your book? Boost your sales?
If you’re writing for a traditional publisher, your contract will probably call your mystery Untitled Work. It’s your job to give it a snappier name. You’ve lived with this book for months, even years. Maybe you’re too close to think of a good title. It’s time to step back and take a look at tips for mystery titles.
Ask your family and friends. I originally wanted to call my Angela Richman mystery about the murder of an aging Hollywood diva, Death Star. My editor said the title sounded too much like science-fiction. My husband Don came up with a play on a classic movie title. The new book was christened A Star Is Dead.
Keep Your Title Short. Yes, I know The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t hurt by its long name. But short, snappy titles sell well. Consider Michael Connelly’s mysteries, starting with Black Echo. His titles are short and to the point. Stephen Cannell was another master of titles. My favorite is The Vertical Coffin, which he said was a cop term. When the first law enforcement officer rushes the door in a takedown, that doorway can quickly become a vertical coffin. Especially if firearms are used.
Early in my career, I wrote a collection of humor columns called The Viets Guide to Sex, Travel and Anything Else that Will Sell This Book. Lots of laughing readers didn’t line up for that title. Instead, drooling old men infested my signings, saying, “I want that book on sex travel.” Apparently the old boys missed that comma between Sex and Travel in the title. My mystery novels with titles like Killer Cuts attracted a better reader.

Search Shakespeare. Some authors, including Marcia Talley, find titles in the Bard’s work. My favorite Talley title is Unbreathed Memories, a phrase from “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” You can hunt for titles in
Hymns and the Bible. Julia Spencer-Fleming has found a number of titles in hymns, beginning with In the Bleak Midwinter. They are perfect for her Rev. Clare Fergusson series.

Want to go trendy? For a while every third book had “Girl” in the title. That trend started with novels like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, not to mention  The Girls With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. None of these women were the girl next door, but their books sold. By the way, The Girl Next Door was used by a wide range of writers, from Brad Parks to Ruth Rendall. It’s even a horror story.

There were also a raft of “Daughters,” as in Leslie Welsh’s The Serial Killer’s Daughter. Now I’m seeing lots of “Wives,” including Daisy Wood’s debut novel, The Clockmaker’s Wife, and Alice Hunter’s The Serial Killer’s Wife.
One word titles can sum up the book. This works well for thrillers, such as Jeff Abbott’s Panic and Aaron Elkins’ Loot. I had a one-word title for a Dead-End Job mystery. I wanted to call the book Catnapped, but there was another mystery with the same name that year.

My editor added an exclamation point to the title and made it Catnapped!, leaving me with a punctuation nightmare. How would you end this sentence: “I hope you like Catnapped!
Should I add a period at the end of this sentence: “I hope you like Catnapped!.”
Or keep the exclamation point and look like a hyper-excited ditz?
Some words have a mystery mystique. Currently on the Pub Alley Fiction Mystery Bestsellers list are titles with words that seem to grab readers:
Paris. Gets them every time. At the top of the list is The Paris Detective: Three Detective Luc Moncrief Thrillers by James Patterson and Richard Dilallo.
Curse. Another intriguing word. Curse of Salem by Kay Hooper made the list.
Midnight. Two titles with “Midnight” are on the list: The Midnight Lock by Jeffrey Deaver and The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths.
Book Title Generators are another tool for clueless mystery writers. You can find several of them here:
I sampled the Mystery Book Title Generator, which claims to be the “Ultimate Bank of 10,000 Titles” that will “generate a random story title that’s relevant to your genre. You can pick between fantasy, crime, mystery, romance, or sci-fi.”

I clicked on “I’m just starting to write” and got this title: “The Mystery of the Three-Inch Stranger,” which struck me as a bit personal. It’s not the size of the stranger, it’s what you do with him.

Series titles: Sue Grafton has her alphabet series, beginning with A Is for Alibi and ending with Y Is for Yesterday. Mary Higgins Clark and her partner-in-crime Alafair Burke have a song title series, starting with You Don’t Own Me. Stephanie Plum uses numbers. Her latest is Game on: Tempting Twenty-eight.
I’d wanted to call my first novel for Penguin The Dead-End Job. My editor thought that would make a good series title, so that book became Shop Till You Drop.
When you write for a publisher, potential titles are batted back and forth. My fourth mystery in that series featured the murder of an overbearing mother of the bride. I wanted to call it One Dead Mother.
My publisher nixed that title as “too urban.” The novel was named Just Murdered.

Enter to win a free copy of Life Without Parole, my latest Angela Richman, death investigator mystery. Stop by Kings River Life magazine:


80th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

by Debbie Burke


Arizona Memorial Pearl Harbor
Photo credit

Today is December 7th, 2021, the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that launched the US into World War II in 1941.

Few people are alive today who remember “a date which will live in infamy (President Franklin Delano Roosevelt).

Fewer still are people who survived the attack that morning in Pearl Harbor. The last ones are in their late 90s to 100+ years.

The closest that we in 2021 can come to learning about that day are stories collected and recorded at this link.

December 7, 1941 was a pivotal date that changed the history of the entire world.

Our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents could all tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on that day.

Long before tattoos became a fashion statement, many young sailors had “Remember Pearl Harbor” permanently inked on their arms.

Battleship Row Pearl Harbor
Photo credit – US govt.

On December 7, 1941, my husband’s grandfather was serving on the USS Tennessee docked on Battleship Row. During the attack, his duty was to grab burning sailors who were being handed up to him from below decks. He then had to throw them over the side of the battleship, far enough out that they didn’t strike the anti-torpedo blister, in order to extinguish the flames consuming their clothes and bodies.

Anti-torpedo blister
Photo credit – Wikipedia


When the USS Arizona blew up, his back was toward the explosion. He was horribly burned but, after a year in the hospital, he returned to duty through the end of the war. His back was forever scarred like a topographic relief map.

About ten years ago at a gym, my husband was talking with an older man on an adjacent treadmill about World War II and specifically Pearl Harbor. A young man about 20 who overheard their conversation approached. He was a junior in college, polite, well-spoken, articulate, and appeared to be a curious, conscientious student.

He asked my husband, “Excuse me, sir, can you tell me what Pearl Harbor is?”

Apparently the “date which will live in infamy” was no longer taught in school.

JFK Lincoln Continental – photo credit Wikimedia

November 22, 1963 was the defining date of infamy for my generation of Baby Boomers. We can all tell you exactly where we were and what we were doing when we learned the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated.

Again, the world shifted on its axis and events that occurred after that date were forever stained by it.  

About five years ago, my husband and I were chatting with a young woman working her way through college as a server in a restaurant. We mentioned John F. Kennedy. She said, “Kennedy? Wasn’t he a president that was killed in a car crash?”

Apparently, my generation’s date in infamy is now a barely-remembered blip in history.

Two years from now will mark the 60th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. Oh my, that makes me feel old.

World Trade Center – photo credit Wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0


September 11, 2001 again changed the entire world. Generations born after that date have never known air travel without the TSA, body scanners, pat-downs, luggage X-rays and searches.




2020 doesn’t have one specific date when the entire globe changed. But just the mention of “2020” is enough to provoke a sigh, a grimace, or an eye roll in every person of the age of cognizance who’s alive today.

2020 is part of our collective consciousness, as December 7, November 22, and September 11 were part of the collective consciousness of earlier generations.

Last week, a friend came to visit with her 18-month-old baby who was born in 2020. We were contemplating what Aubrey’s future might look like. Because of pandemic restrictions, she hadn’t encountered many people outside her close family and almost no one around her age.

Recently, they had gone to a playground where Aubrey saw other toddlers for the first time and reacted with amazement and curiosity. She approached a little boy and touched him.

The boy’s mother immediately swooped in and picked up the child, scolding, “We don’t touch.”

People born after December 7, 1941 never knew a world that wasn’t profoundly influenced by World War II. That was their frame of reference, their concept of “normal.”

Same for people born after November 22, 1963 and September 11, 2001. They never knew what the world was like before JFK’s assassination or before planes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

What will school be like for Aubrey in a few years? We don’t know. But, whatever the circumstances are, that will be “normal” to her because it’s the only frame of reference she knows.

The generation born in 2020 or later will never fully realize the world was once a different place.

Aubrey won’t know that parents once thought it was perfectly normal socialization for children to play, touch, push, hug, and watch each other’s reactions.

What does all this have to do with writing?

Nothing and everything.

As writers, we record the world we live in, or research, or make up. We also contrast our story worlds with other locales, other cultures, other periods in history, and even imaginary journeys into the future.

Throughout time, writers have chronicled the collective consciousness of different generations.

No matter the genre—crime, romance, history, fantasy, horror, nonfiction, etc.—we capture the zeitgeist, which Merriam-Webster defines that as “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era.”

That’s an awesome, daunting responsibility.


Eighty years later, is Pearl Harbor relevant in today’s world?

A handful of remembrance ceremonies will be held today but, in a few more generations, there won’t even be ceremonies.

The date will fade into obscurity like April 14, 1865.

What happened on that date?

Back then, every American could probably tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned Abraham Lincoln had been shot that night and died the following morning.

Time marches forward. Younger generations replace older ones who have been the keepers of the memories. Old memories are forgotten and new ones take their places.

If future generations find our stories on the dusty shelves of cyberspace, they may smile or scoff at quaint, outdated references.

But I hope they will also recognize human truths we wrote about that transcend time.

Dates like December 7, 1941 are still worth remembering and worth writing about because of the people in Pearl Harbor who made history. 


Today is my last post in 2021 before TKZ goes on annual hiatus.

I’m grateful for your friendship and interest. Except for the written word, we probably wouldn’t have met. So glad we did!

Warmest holiday wishes to you and your loved ones.



Special holiday prices for all Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion through the end of the year. A great gift for your reading friends…or yourself!

Reindeer Fun

The holiday season is a hectic time, with planning the perfect family celebration, shopping for gifts, decorating the house, inside and out, and mailing cards.

Many have stopped the tradition of sending holiday cards. For me, there’s something so special about peeking into the mailbox to find a card. It means someone took the time to wish you happy holidays, trekked down to the Post Office, or raised the tiny red flag on their mailbox to signal outgoing mail. It’s a beautiful tradition that I fear new generations will let slip away (along with cursive handwriting). I love the holiday season, the frigid temps thawed with magic, possibilities.

With the frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, I thought I’d share 10 fun facts about reindeer, originally posted on my blog in 2018.

1. A Reindeer By Any Other Name is Still a Reindeer

In some regions of the world, Reindeer are called caribou. In North America reindeer refers to Eurasian populations and caribou refers to wild populations

2. Reindeer Belong to the Cervidae Family

Reindeer — aka Rangifer Tarandus — have 14 subspecies, including deer, elk, moose, and wapiti. All Cervidae have antlers, hooves, and long legs.

3. Girls Can Do Everything Boys Can Do

Reindeer are the only species of deer in which both males and females grow antlers, and they grow a new set every year. Male antlers can grow up to 51 inches long and weigh up to 33 pounds. A female rack can grow up to 20 inches long.

According to the San Diego Zoo …

Antlers are the reindeer’s most memorable characteristic. In comparison to body size, reindeer have the largest and heaviest antlers of all living deer species. All antlers have a main beam and several branches or tines that grow from the frontal bones of the skull. Sometimes little branchlets or snags are also present. The tip of each antler is called a point. Unlike horns, antlers fall off and grow back larger every year.

As new antlers grow, the reindeer is said to be in velvet, because skin, blood vessels, and soft fur cover the developing antlers. When the velvet dries up, the reindeer rubs it off against rocks or trees, revealing the hardened, bony core.


4. Santa’s Reindeer Must be Female

Since males grow antlers in February and females in May, they both finish growing antlers at the same time. But male and female reindeer shed antlers at different times of the year. Males drop antlers in November, leaving them antler-less till the spring. Female reindeer keep antlers through the winter months. They’re shed when calves are born in May.

Thus, since Santa’s reindeer all have antlers, he must have an all-female team. 🙂

5. Males are From Mars, Females are From Venus

Male and female reindeer use antlers in different ways. Males wield them as weapons against potential predators. They also showcase impressive racks to woo females. Although females also war with these handy weapons, they mainly use antlers to clear snow while foraging for food.

6. Reindeer Come in a Variety of Colors

Depending on the subspecies, region, sex, and even the season, reindeer fur ranges from dark brown in woodland subspecies to nearly white in Greenland. A reindeer’s coat is dark in the summer, light in winter.

Reindeer have two coats:

  • an undercoat of fine, soft wool right next to their skin
  • a top layer of long, hollow guard hairs

The air trapped inside the guard hairs hold in body heat to keep the animal warm against wind and cold. The hollow hair help the reindeer float, which aid them in swimming. Did you know reindeer could swim?

7. Adorable Furry Hooves

A reindeer’s furry hooves give the animal an advantage when walking on frozen ground, ice, mud, or snow. Spongy footpads help them strut through marshy fields. In the winter, the hooves harden to dig into ice or snow while anchoring the reindeer from slipping.

When a reindeer swims, their broad, flat, two-toed hooves allow the animal to push water aside. They even have a dewclaw which acts as an extra hoof to assist in climbing rugged terrain.

8. The Nose Knows

A reindeer’s specialized nose helps to warm incoming cold air before it hits their lungs. Like dogs, their super sniffer can find food hidden under snow, locate danger, and recognize direction. Reindeer are the only subspecies of deer to possess a furry nose.

9. Herd Life

Reindeer hang in herds. Not only are they safer from predators but they’re social animals, chatting among themselves with snorts, grunts, and hoarse calls, especially during mating season. Calves bleat to call their mother.

Reindeer travel, feed, and rest in a herd of 10 to 100s. In the spring, reindeer may even form super herds of 50,000 to 500,000. These super herds follow food sources, traveling up to 1,000 miles during harsh winters.

10. Catch Me If You Can

During migration, reindeer cover 12–34 miles per day and can run at speeds of up to 50 mph. Even a day-old calf can outrun an Olympic sprinter!

Hope you enjoyed these reindeer facts. Which one is your favorite?

Timing and Punchlines

by Debbie Burke


Photo credit: Allan Warren, Creative Commons license



I use the cigar for timing purposes. If I tell a joke, I smoke as long as they laugh and when they stop laughing I take the cigar out of my mouth and start my next joke. – George Burns




Note: Today’s discussion concerns later drafts when you rewrite, edit, and polish. It doesn’t apply to first drafts where the main job is to get the story down. 


I love the great old comedians like George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx. They not only knew WHAT to say to make the audience laugh, they knew WHEN to say it. They were masters at timing.

Johnny Carson freely admitted, when he was starting out, he blatantly copied Jack Benny—the gestures (elbow in hand, hand on cheek), the pauses, the deadpan stares.

These guys knew how to tell a joke: introduction, buildup, suspenseful pauses, more buildup, and, at last, the climax of the joke known as the punchline.

According to

Where Did the Punchline Originate?

Punchlines in jokes can be traced back a long way, but the term “punchline” first came onto the scene in the early twentieth century. While it is usually attributed to the British humor magazine Punch, the term itself was first used by a Wisconsin newspaper, The Racine Journal News, in 1912, when a review of a play described a “punch in every line.”

The New York Times talked about “punch lines” the following year. “Punchline” then gained traction and usage in reference to performances and finally appeared in the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 1921.


Classic comedians can teach authors a lot. After all, what are jokes but tightly compressed stories that have a beginning, middle, and end?

Both comedians and authors introduce a situation, one or more characters, and a problem. Events unfold. Certain key clues are withheld. Suspense builds. At the end comes the Big Reveal—the PUNCHLINE in a joke or the CLIMAX in a novel.

As authors, we are concerned with macro issues: plot, character development and story arc.

Today, though, let’s focus instead on micro issues. By this, I mean individual sentences, paragraphs, and scenes with special attention to word order and timing.

In How to Write a Mystery (an excellent book I reviewed recently), Hank Phillippi Ryan writes:

…Even though you’re writing a whole book, each page must be a perfect part of your perfect whole, and that means each individual page must work. 

Think of a paragraph like a joke. Although the content doesn’t have to be funny, the delivery is similar. It needs an introduction, building action and suspense, then a mini-climax that propels the reader into the next paragraph.

One paragraph leads to the next, with more building action and suspense, then another mini-climax.

Put a bunch of paragraphs together and they become a scene.

Combine a bunch of scenes and they turn into a chapter.

Stack up those chapters and you eventually have a book.

Let’s examine sentences since they are the building blocks on which the entire story rests. If you start with solid sentences, you’re more likely to create good paragraphs, scenes, and chapters.

What makes a good sentence?

Clarity. The meaning should be understandable on the first read.

Direct and active;

Has a purpose in the story;


What shouldn’t be in a sentence? 

Description for description’s sake;

Pointless thinking or musing by a character;

Excess verbiage or fluff.

Confusing elements;

Long, overly-complicated, or convoluted phrasing.

When you rewrite, examine each sentence, word by word.

When you read it aloud, does it flow smoothly? Are there places where you stumble?

Is there a stronger verb or noun you can use?

Are there filler words you can cut without changing the meaning?

Consider the order of the words in the following example:

Ed plopped on the couch and popped the top on a beer that he’d just bought when he drove to the liquor store. He’d been arguing with Mary all morning. She claimed he was drinking too much.


Hard to follow because the events are out of chronological order. The “punchline” is buried. Nothing pulls the reader into the next scene.

The argument about drinking too much is actually the first event that starts a chain reaction. Ed and Mary argue. He drives to the liquor store, buys beer, comes home, and starts drinking to thumb his nose at Mary’s concerns.

If this example were a joke, the punchline is buried near the beginning.

The paragraph ends with a whimper, not a bang.


Ed was fed up with the constant arguments. Why did Mary keep trying to control him? He stormed out the door, drove to the liquor store, and bought a twelve-pack of Rainier. Back at home, he plopped on the couch. When Mary entered the living room, he grabbed a can. “Hey, honey, listen to this.” He popped the top.

The same information is conveyed. However, the sentences are shorter; the chronological order is rearranged for clarity; the punchline is at the end.

The punchline also serves as a mini-cliffhanger hinting their argument is about to escalate.

The reader turns the page to find out what happens next.

Ideally, each paragraph is part of a 250 to 300-page chain reaction that continuously builds to the ultimate explosion of the story climax.

Our goal as writers is to make the strongest dramatic impact on the reader. By carefully rearranging words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, you build suspense and impel the reader to turn the page.  

My first drafts are full of long, convoluted sentences and thick, dense paragraphs. Events happen out of order and don’t make much sense, except to me.

All right, sometimes they don’t make sense, even to me!

That’s because I write things in the order that they occur to me. A clue or line of dialogue pops into my mind. I write it down quick before I forget it. That means many words and phrases are in the wrong place.

Of all the tech advances since the dawn of word processing, cut-and-paste is my favorite. It makes editing and polishing far easier than the old-fashioned scissors and tape method. It allows quick and easy rearrangement of words and sentences.

While editing, the writer discovers:

The snappy comeback on page 23 works better in the dialogue on page 12.

The description of the grungy no-tell motel needs to be moved from page 64 back to page 33 when the motel is first shown.

The revelation about the cause of the hero’s scar should be delayed to the midpoint to increase reader curiosity.

As you polish later drafts, consider what the reader needs to know and when they need to know it at any given moment in the story.

In mysteries, we direct suspicion at different characters. We plant clues that don’t seem to have meaning until later chapters.

We mislead the reader with red herrings (although it’s important to play fair or the reader will get angry at being duped).

A revelation unexpectedly pivots the plot in a different direction the reader didn’t expect, resulting in a surprise.

The following video appeared in a previous post. It’s worth watching again because it’s a terrific example of suspense building, perfect timing, and a punchline that delivers a wallop. 

Good timing results in the greatest dramatic impact on the reader.

For old-time comedians (and good contemporary ones like Dan Yashinsky), timing is crucial.

The same is true with storytelling.


TKZers: Do you consider timing when you write? Do you have suggestions how to achieve more dramatic effect?



Black Friday through Cyber Monday Sale. All Tawny Lindholm Thrillers are only $.99 from November 26 through November 29.


Major Online Bookstores

The Man With the Gun

By Elaine Viets

Most mystery writers know this quote by Raymond Chandler: “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”
Like most mystery writing advice, this “man with a gun” needs more explanation.
According to author Louise Tondeur, Chandler was talking about “the demand … for constant action” and how “this could get to be pretty silly.”
“In other words, he was NOT issuing a tip for budding crime writers. He’s saying something closer to: there’s a demand for constant action in detective fiction, men are always rushing in with guns, there’s no time to look around, that’s sort of a shame, but that’s what you’ve got to do to get published these days (these days being 1950).”

So let’s look at that man with a gun metaphorically, as a constant need for action. Chandler’s quote is really about pacing and surprises in your writing.
You can’t have guys with guns running around loose in your novel and surprises popping up like Whac-A-Mole. Here are some points to consider:

Why not a woman with a gun?
Even Chandler had his femme fatales. For this discussion, the man with the gun could also be a woman. Your surprises are not bound by gender.
Is the man with the gun threatening or killing someone?
That threat can lead to several spicy chapters: your protagonist may manage to persuade the man with the gun not to kill him, or somehow overpower him. The man with the gun could become an ally or remain a deadly enemy. Either way, you’ve gained some plot points.

What if the man with the gun kills someone?
That’s good, right? I mean, it’s good for your story, not your victim. It moves the plot along.
Maybe. But this man could create more problems. Consider this.
Who is he killing and why?
Is he shooting a witness? Will that complicate the plot? Is he killing someone he’s always hated? Or a lover who betrayed him? Think about it. This can’t be a random murder. Ask yourself, do I need this surprise/killing here? Or should I use another way to pick up the pace?

Murder thoughtfully and with restraint.
When I first started writing mysteries, I killed like a serial killer on a spree. Unfortunately, I killed one of my better characters, Lee the Rehabber, in my first mystery, Backstab. As the series went on, I realized I could have used the chatty home renovation expert in other books, but it was too late. I couldn’t even claim he had amnesia and returned from a long trip. I’d already autopsied him. Consider your character’s future usefulness before the bullets start flying.

If you’re writing a cozy, for heaven’s sake, don’t let him shoot anyone.
Not in front of your readers, anyway. They don’t want to see all that blood.
Cozies are a delicate balance of family, friendship and murder. You can’t let the corpses start piling up.
Murder according to your genre. You may want more murders in an action-packed thriller or noir mystery.
Finally, if you’re going to have a second (or third, or fourth) murder in your mystery, tie the murder into the plot.
The killing could be a red herring or a clue, a friend of your protagonist or an enemy, but the murder should be tied to the story in some way. I got this advice from one of my editors, and it’s served me well. She did not like random murders showing up in my books.
Just remember: You are the god of this world you’ve created, and in your world, all murders (and surprises) must happen for a reason

This Friday, Nov. 12, I’m appearing in-person 7:00 PM, at Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore to sign my new Angela Richman mystery, LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE.
Murder on the Beach is at 104 West Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach, FL 33444. This will be a free and safe event, with masks and social distancing. You can Zoom, too. Email Murder on the Beach for your free Zoom link.

First Page Critique – Dinner with a Celebrity


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By Debbie Burke



Welcome to another Brave Author who submitted a first page for review. Please enjoy reading it then we’ll discuss.


Dinner with a Celebrity

My knees nearly buckled at the sound of the doorbell. Glancing through the window, I saw them waiting on the porch. Fortunately, they were five minutes late. I wished it could have been ten. Accepting that I couldn’t just leave them standing out there, I headed for the door. Even before the door was fully open, a guy hauling a camera brushed past me, mumbling to himself. Another hoisting a microphone boom like a javelin, followed right behind. Without another word they busied themselves setting up.

“Yes. Come right in,” I said, in a tone that may have sounded snarky but was mostly nerves. Without asking, the camera guy moved a chair nearer the window. Would it have killed him to ask? “Can I give you a hand?”

“Just need to get the soft light,” he said. Taking a few steps back he nudged my end table aside and spread out a tri-pod. “This gives the most flattering camera angle.” He was probably responding to my furrowed brow. “Carol will be here in a few minutes.”

“I see,” I had no idea what he meant.

“We have to get everything set up before she arrives. Heaven help us if we don’t capture the Grand Entrance.” He punctuated the statement with an exaggerated eye roll. Grand entrance? I was struck with dread that I might be spending a long evening with a diva.

The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances. I rushed back to the kitchen to check on dinner. What had I been thinking?

The truth is, I hadn’t. Why had I done it? Here’s why? The most pathetic reason on earth—because my friends were doing it.

Honest, I’m old enough to know better. Cold beer may have also been a factor.

That was at least four months ago and I had completely forgotten about it—until yesterday. It all came rushing back to me.

Right there in the bar, we all applied to a reality TV show called “Dinner with a Celebrity”. The show’s premise is simple. A regular person, like me, prepares a dinner. A celebrity, like Carol, comes over to help eat it. There’s a little more to it than that, but not really. I went along only because there was zero chance any of us would be selected. Yesterday, they phoned to tell me I had won and to give me the name of my celebrity.


First of all, congratulations to the Brave Author for starting this scene with action, conflict, and tension.

GENERAL OVERVIEW: Brave Author doesn’t specify a genre but the light tone and the situation may indicate Romantic Comedy. TKZers, what do you think?

A camera crew barges through the front door of the protagonist’s home and hurriedly sets up equipment in preparation for a vain celebrity diva who’s about to arrive.

Right away, readers share the character’s discomfort. No one likes strangers to intrude in their home, even for a benign reason like a TV reality show. The description of a boom as a javelin is not only accurate but funny.

The backstory set up is handled quickly with a deft, humorous touch, showing the character’s personality and self-doubt:

Why had I done it? Here’s why.? The most pathetic reason on earth—because my friends were doing it. 

Honest, I’m old enough to know better. Cold beer may have also been a factor. 

Haven’t we all done dumb things because of peer pressure, aided and abetted by alcohol? That makes the character relatable and likable, if a bit goofy.

However, backstory can be further condensed and punched up. See the example shown later.


Name: When writing in first-person POV, the sooner a name is established, the more easily the reader can slide into the story world.

Since the person pushing through the door is mumbling, you might as well use that opportunity to have him say, “Sorry we’re late. You’re Mr./Ms. Doe, right?”

“Yes, but call me John/Jane.”

Gender: I’m unclear if the character is male or female. “The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances.” That implies male but today it could go either way.

Like a name, immediate establishment of gender removes any nagging questions in the reader’s mind.

Maybe I’m being sexist but, to me, the overall tone sounded like a woman trying to write like a man. Would it have killed him to ask? and I rushed back to the kitchen… felt more like the attitude and action of a woman.

The first line could be stronger. “My knees nearly buckled” is not only a cliché but “nearly” weakens it even more.  Also, such an intense reaction to a ringing doorbell seems over the top.

Two lines struck me as better possibilities for the opening sentence:

The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances.




Honest, I’m old enough to know better. Cold beer may have also been a factor. 


Exaggeration establishes a humorous tone but it felt overdone. I already mentioned knees nearly buckling because of the doorbell. Another example: I was struck with dread that I might be spending a long evening with a divaDread is a potent emotion, too strong for the minor inconvenience the character is experiencing.

Secondary characters:

Good job of showing the camera guy as the long-suffering worker who must put up with  spoiled, entitled celebrities.

Excellent depiction of Carol’s personality. She hasn’t even appeared on the scene but the reader already knows she a vain PITA (pain in the a$$). If the genre is rom-com, you’ve set up a hate-at-first-sight introduction which immediately promises conflict between the principal characters. Well done. 

Tone: the overall feel of the writing is inconsistent. At times, it sounds tentative and uncertain yet other times overstated (e.g. dread).  If you’re establishing the character’s personality as an insecure, neurotic, Woody Allen-type, that may be appropriate.

However, if you want a stronger, more positive tone, I suggest you delete some modifiers and sharpen weak sentences.

Here’s a possible revision that assumes the protagonist is male. Also, a little rearrangement for punchier impact:

The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances.

My knees nearly buckled at the sound of the doorbell. Glancing through the window, I saw them crew waiting on the porch. Fortunately, they were five minutes late. Ten would have been better. I wished it could have been ten. Accepting that I couldn’t just leave them standing out there, As much as I wanted to leave them standing there, I headed for the door. Even before it the door was fully open, a guy hauling a camera brushed past me, mumbling, to himself. “Sorry we’re late. You’re Mr. Doe, right?”

“Yes, but call me John.”

Another crew member, hoisting a microphone boom like a javelin, followed right behind the camera man. Without another word, they busied themselves setting up.

Yes. Come right in,” I said., in a  My tone that may have sounded snarky but was mostly nerves. Without asking, t The camera guy moved a chair nearer the window. Would it have killed him to ask permission? It was my house, not a sound set. “Can I give you a hand?”

“Just need to get the soft light,” he said. Taking a few steps back he nudged my end table aside and spread out a tri-pod. “This gives the most flattering camera angle.” He was probably responding to my furrowed brow. “Carol will be here in a few minutes.”

“I see.” I frowned, having no idea what he meant.

“We have to get everything set up before she arrives. Heaven help us if we don’t capture the Grand Entrance.” He punctuated the statement with an exaggerated eye roll. Grand entrance? I was struck with dread that Oh, great. I didn’t look forward to a long evening with a diva.

I hustled to the kitchen to check on dinner in the oven. The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances. I rushed back to the kitchen to check on dinner. What had I been thinking?

The truth is, I hadn’t. Why had I done it? Here’s why? The most pathetic reason on earth—because my friends were doing it.

Honest, I’m old enough to know better. Cold beer may have also been a factor.

That was at least four months ago and I had completely forgotten about it—until yesterday. It all came rushing back to me. 

Four months ago, right there in the bar, we all applied to a reality TV show called “Dinner with a Celebrity”. The show’s premise is simple. A regular person [guy], like me, prepares a dinner. A celebrity, like Carol, comes over to help eat it. There’s a little more to it than that, but not really. I went along only because there was zero chance any of us would be selected.

I’d completely forgotten until yesterday when the producer phoned to tell me I had won. My celebrity was Carol XYZ, the hottest dancing sensation to light up TikTok this month. [or whatever Carol’s claim to fame is].


The writing is clear, competent, and easy to read. The premise is contemporary, intriguing, and funny. Tweaks are small and easily accomplished. This page contains the ingredients for a tasty dinner and shows plenty of promise as an entertaining rom-com. 

Brave Author, thanks for submitting.


TKZers: Would you turn the page? Do you have suggestions for the Brave Author?


Looking for a new series to read during long winter nights? Try Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book, Instrument of the Devil, is FREE. 

Amazon             Other online booksellers

Twitter Tutorial – From Zero to 12K

Gerd Altmann – Pixabay

by Debbie Burke


Full disclosure: I’m lousy at social media.

My writing bona fides are respectable with six published thrillers, numerous nonfiction articles, and this wonderful gig on TKZ.

Yet, after three years on Twitter, I have a low three-figure following. Pitiful, huh? 

Clearly, I’m doing something wrong.

Social media is that annoying stone in my already-uncomfortable marketing shoe. For contemporary authors, it’s a fact of life that we may not embrace but we can’t dismiss it either.

Recently, during an off-air discussion with TKZ regular Ben Lucas, he mentioned he was working on his as-yet-unpublished first novel and…

he had more than 12,000 Twitter followers.


How does a writer without a single book to sell develop such an impressive presence on social media?

I needed to know more. So I asked him.

His answers are today’s post.

Take it away, Ben!


Debbie: How has an as-yet-unpublished author collected 12K Twitter followers in less than a year?

Ben: First, I wanted to thank Debbie for allowing me to post on TKZ. I hope she keeps this line in so that you all know I’m grateful to be given the opportunity to share. This is a new personal high, and I hope to return the favor.

Technically, I’m a new author, but I’ve studied the craft for over a decade. Most of this is not new information, just good use of good advice. I have 12.5K Twitter followers, 9.8K on LinkedIn and another 5K on Facebook. These are the links:

The obvious question is, why am I doing this if I have no book to sell? It’s a line item of a giant checklist to help my future launch be successful. 2011, my first go around getting a book published was a disaster—many lessons learned. A big failure on my part was not using good advice or best practices.

But in 2020, (me having regrets), I listened to James Scott Bell on Great Courses. My immediate takeaway was marketing is crucial. That experience started my WIP, but also made me determined to brand myself. After more careful study, I started my social media building last December.

Marketing and branding are kind of related, but different. Marketing is the efforts you make to generate sales. But, branding is the business image you create. As I went along, I built my social media base to create goodwill and credibility whenever I can, (e.g. branding).

For the record, I have no illusions, as I’m keeping my hopes high and my expectations low. None of this is guaranteed, especially if my book comes out and SUCKS!

James Scott Bell says you can’t sell books on Twitter. I think he’s 100% right. If there is an effective marketing technique on social media, I haven’t seen it yet. Actually, besides announcing great deals, a lot of sales tactics on Twitter leave me feeling awkward and tacky. But, there are more important things that social media will offer you, which branding seems the best effort.

My overall goal is to not be forgotten before I even get started. Multiple experts helped to develop my approach:

Post something at least once a day. Twice maximum. Any less and you are forgotten. Any more than twice, you are a nuisance. (I’ve actually stopped following people because they constantly send out four posts an hour and I don’t have time to follow it all).

You can’t just publish text as a social media post. You need something visual that should have a common look/feel. comes in handy.

You need to follow other people back. Following other people back on social media will help you get into an algorithm. In short, if you are connecting to other readers and authors, Twitter will also suggest you as a connection to other like-minded individuals.

One reason people are following me is because I’m asking them to. I’m soft, not pushy, but consistent. For example, my common lead for my posts, “I would appreciate your support/follow on Twitter—for more information about me and my upcoming projects sign up for my newsletter #readmore #writingcommunity #writing #quoteoftheday.”

Here’s an example of something created using Canva. I send out a visual quote every day similar to this one:

Debbie: Are all your tweets on writing/reading?

Ben: Yes. Everything I tweet or post is about writing or others in the #writingcommunity.

Debbie: Do you contribute to/take part in groups not related to writing/reading?

Ben: No. All my efforts are about writing. I’m making new friends and relationships. I’m finding this very rewarding.

Debbie: Did you already have an established following for some other interest?

Ben: No. None. I have lots of other interest but nothing I wanted to write about. Being an author is my passion, and I spend nearly all my free time pursuing it.

Debbie: How much time do you spend on social media each day?

 Ben: I spend about an hour a day on social media (all three sites). I’ve become highly efficient—I had to, otherwise this can consume you like a shark devouring a guppy. Routine for me is important since I manage five people during my day job, have a wife, three kids, and a needy dog.

My daily routine is to wake up the kids, get people fed, go to the computer and post my daily thing. I’ll wish my followers a happy birthday or congratulations on their life events. I read TKZ, and if I can, add something to the conversations. After that, I do my day job and then try to write a thousand words between the remaining madness. At the end of the day, I interact online with some followers.

Debbie: What’s your day job?

Ben: I’m a Safety Manager for a construction company that services oil and gas. I have been in occupational safety and health for twenty-five plus years.

Debbie: How did you find your particular niche?

Ben: This question made me think of two different things.

  1. My niche for story telling came from my overseas experiences. I was in the UAE back in the early 2000s, working in one of the largest gas plants in the world. When the Arabs brought in the surface-to-air missiles, I thought it was time to leave. I was okay with the 50 caliber guns at the gate, but not the other stuff.
  2. My approach to branding comes from the safety profession and building and implementing management systems. I’m great at developing and measuring safety culture—which boils down to opinions. What I chase the most in my day job with our employees and clients is to shape their opinions. It’s an important part of business, which equates to building confidence.

If I do my job right, company culture is positive. Do it wrong, you have a negative impact or feeling.

Same thing goes here too, that I’m shaping my followers to feel good about connecting with me. My hope is my actions will lead to a positive opinion about who I am and what I do.

Debbie: You talk quite a bit about “brand.” Can you sum up in a sentence or two what your brand is?

Ben: For me, branding is two-fold.

I base my actions on four words which are sincerity, success, tolerance, and tact. (Posted on my Ted Lasso wall), my daily focus.

Brand statements to me are secondary, but I have one. “Ben Lucas is an author, rooted in thriller storytelling, who is inspired by the high and lows of the world oil industry.” For me, my brand statement will develop as my work matures.

Debbie: Do you ever attract “creepy” followers? If so, how do you handle them?

Ben: YES! This kind of stuff happens a lot to me because I tend to follow everyone back. But, don’t be afraid to follow other people. Be open to other like-minded individuals. If you follow others who are like-minded, you will build more followers. Connections can build even more followers and potential readers of your materials.

Overall, here are your best defenses:

Don’t follow people back if they appear to be scammers. I think there are some great articles on TKZ that go into a lot of details of what to look for.

Don’t answer back any direct or personal mail on social media, (like Twitter), unless you know the person. Social media is meant to be ‘social’ and you should communicate in group discussions or comments on posts. Once those conversations happen in private, things can get awkward fast.

Do not give out your personal details online.

You are in control—therefore, take control of the situation and block those people making things awkward. If it feels odd, be safe, block them, and make a report.

Debbie: Do you have a short synopsis of your upcoming book?

Ben: It’s called The Smoke Eater

(JSB Inspired Tagline)

Survival In a New Age of Extremism

When terrorist radicals are thrown into the mix, Reid’s new job turns deadly.

Desiring a fresh start, broken firefighter Reid Harris goes to Azurbar to work at the massive BuHasa facility. His new employer doesn’t care that he can’t pass the physical.

On his first day, Reid witnesses a stunning incident that determines his new norm. Martial law drives surging terrorism. He expected hard times, but now worries he can’t meet work demands. On top of Reid’s fear of dying on the job, a Azurbaree national with a vicious obsession further threatens his survival.

This is my working cover, which I made on

BTW – Recent posts on TKZ made me rethink my publishing strategy. My gut is telling me to buckle down and find an agent. I was inspired when I saw John Gilstrap’s video of his agent and editor being in sync with each other. He’s very fortunate to have people like that on his side. Going to start that process and see where it might take me.


Thank you, Ben, for sharing your well-thought-out strategy. You are setting yourself up for a successful launch. Let us know when that happens.


Social media sidebar bonus courtesy of Authors Guild member Joanna Malaczynski:

Social Media Market Share (Source: StatCounter)
#1 Facebook – Approximately 70% of the market
#2 Pinterest and Twitter – Approximately 10% of the market each
#3 YouTube and Instagram – Less than 5% of the market each (BUT SEE BELOW about the significance of YouTube)
#4 Tumblr and Reddit – Approximately 1% of the market each

Most Popular Search Engines (Source: Search Engine Journal and Visual Capitalist)
#1 Google – about 60.5 billion monthly visits
#2 YouTube – about 25 billion monthly visits
#3 Amazon – about 2.4 billion monthly visits (but used more as a search engine than Facebook)
#4 Facebook – about 20 billion monthly visits


TKZers: Feel free to share your social media handles in the comment section. Someone might want to follow you and you might find someone you want to follow.


Debbie Burke’s new resolution: tweet more about her series Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. Please check them out at this link.

Monday Tips and LOLs

I should’ve had a first page critique for you today, but it’s my birthday, you see, and I gave myself the gift of time. By that I mean, rather than juggle nine million tasks, I spent an uninterrupted Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning inside my fictional world (except for a quick trip to TKZ to read Rev’s top-notch advice about agents and JSB’s superb first page critique). Sunday afternoons I reserve for football. 😉

Most of last week I spent redesigning my website and Murder Blog. Then tweaked it to death in between working on the WIP, engaging on social media, marketing, newsletters, virtual events, updating email subscribers and SEO, etc. etc. etc. So, allowing myself to pull away from it all, crawl into my writer’s cave, and block out the world freed my soul.

Today’s dedicated to birthday shenanigans. If the sun parts the storm clouds, Bob and I will head to one of my favorite places—Squam Lakes Natural Science Center—for a relaxing stroll through the wildlife trails. It’s the simple things in life that bring the most joy. Don’t you agree?

I’ve got two writer tips to share, then let’s party with a few Monday morning laughs. Sound good? Cool, let’s do this…


If someone Unsubscribes from your email list, be sure to Archive their name. Mailchimp and other email providers still charge you whether or not that person ever receives another newsletter. You’re billed for Contacts, not Subscribers. Technically, the person who Unsubscribed is still considered a Contact. They can’t charge for Archived Contacts.


Poor SEO (Search Engine Optimization), an outdated design, lost backlinks, broken links, and/or a slow or unresponsive website theme murders organic traffic. If bot crawlers aren’t happy, they might skip your site, and all the years you’ve spent writing content will be wasted. Did you know most people read blogs on handheld devices? I am not one of them, but the experts swear it’s true.



Umm, about five minutes ago. Did you know this?




I plead the fifth, Your Honor. 😉


Who can relate?

Feel free to steal any of these for your social media. Hope you have an amazing week!


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.

Two Important Points for Writers

A recent conversation with my husband brought up two important points for writers to keep in mind. Rather than tell you, I’ll peel back the veil and let you eavesdrop.

Bob: Whatcha doin’?

Me: Studying forensic taphonomy. I’ve been dyin’ to dig into this field and finally gotta reason. Exciting, right?

Bob: Forensic taphonomy? Oh, sure, I know all about it. Are you just researching that now? I’ve known about it for years.

Me: Ha. Ha. Very funny.

Bob: Lemme ask ya this. Why are you studying forensic whatever-it’s-called?

Me: Forensic taphonomy. Well, I need to know it for a new character— Actually, the character’s an anthropologist, but y’know, since we only have one in the state, she delves into forensic taphonomy and forensic archaeology, as well. That part’s true, by the way, not fiction. We really do only have one forensic anthropologist in New Hampshire. Imagine how overworked she is? Anyway, since I needed to learn the field, I figured I’d write a post about it for TKZ. Y’know, two birds, one stone type o’ thing.

Bob: How far’d ya get?

Me: The post? About halfway. Wanna hear it?

Bob: Sure.

Me: Okay. Forensic taphonomy is the study of what happens to the human body after death. Specifically, how organisms decay and/or fossilize when exposed to the elements or in clandestine graves. Most of what happens to the body (and evidence) at an outdoor crime scene is the result of alteration or modification by natural agents, such as plants, animals, insects, soils, environment, gravity, and a whole range of environmental, climatic, and biotic factors.

The recognition and documentation of the specific role played by each of these natural agents becomes critical to understanding why evidence ends up where it does and why it looks the way it looks. By focusing on unusual patterns of dispersal and/or removal of evidence and/or remains, it shows investigators where or if human intervention occurred. (e.g., moving/removing remains to hide evidence).

Bob *teeing his hand*: Stop, stop, stop.

Me: What’s wrong?

Bob: Ya lost me.

Me: Which part?

Bob: Does it matter? You lost your audience.

Me: Oh. *pause* But forensic taphonomy’s a fascinating field.

Bob: For you, maybe.

Me: Since when is decomposition not fascinating? I thought you and I lived on the same page.

Bob: Honey, we do, but your audience may not appreciate your fascination with decomp and death like I do.

Me: Oh.

Bob: What’re you gonna write about?

Me: I dunno now. You ruined it.

Bob: You may wanna rethink that character, too.

Me: Why are you in my office?

Bob: Too much?

Me *glares*

Bob *backing away*: Yep, crossed a line. Okay, okay, don’t shoot. I’m goin’.

Sadly, he’s not wrong. When I read the post aloud it sounded dry. He wasn’t right about the character, though. I need her—she plays a vital role in the plot—but I may have gotten a bit overeager with my research. And you guys almost ended up with a 1500-word post about forensic taphonomy to read with your morning coffee/tea.

This conversation raises two important points. Did you catch them already?

#1: For what reasons do we create secondary characters?

Secondary characters bring the story to life. No one lives in a bubble. Secondary characters can provide comic relief at a tense moment, or make matters worse by adding conflict or increasing tension. A secondary character may come in the form of a mentor, love interest, work colleague, long lost relative…the list goes on and on. Subplots often revolve around secondary characters, and we can use these subplots to mirror and add depth to the main storyline.

Just because the plot may not revolve around a secondary character doesn’t mean their role is less important. After all, they’re still human with hopes and wants and dreams and fears and flaws like the rest of us. The story will be more interesting if our secondary characters are working toward their goals alongside the main characters.

While crafting a new secondary character, don’t get hung up on what they look like, unless their appearance adds to their characterization. For example, a depressed character might wear baggy lounge wear that’s two sizes too big, never wear makeup, or even bother to brush their hair.

What matters most is their role in the story, their association with the main players, and how they work with—or against—the protagonist. Once we nail down their role, we can flesh them out with personality traits that complement or contrast with the key players.

#2: Always keep the reader in mind.

Yes, we’ve all heard the speech: Write for you and you alone.

While it’s true on a certain level, writing is also a business. For those who don’t care if anyone ever reads their work, it’s a hobby. In which case, they probably don’t care much about craft, either. Serious writers keep audience expectations in mind. We care about delivering a visceral thrill ride each and every time. Which is not the same as writing for money or some crazy get-rich-quick scheme. If that’s the goal, find another profession.

I’ll let Stephen King explain:

One more matter needs to be discussed, a matter that bears directly on that life-changer and one that I’ve touched on already, but indirectly. Now I’d like to face it head-on. It’s a question that people ask in different ways—sometimes it comes out polite and sometimes it comes out rough, but it always amounts to the same: Do you do it for the money, honey?

The answer is no. Don’t now and never did. Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it. I have done some work as favors for friends—logrolling is the slang term for it—but at the very worst, you’d have to call that a crude kind of barter. I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.

Thank you, Mr. King!

TKZers, care to share your favorite secondary character? S/he can be a character you created or one you read about.

I AM MAYHEM is a semi-finalist in the 2021 Kindle Book Review Awards. Fingers crossed for the next round!