Old Dog Learns New Trick

by Debbie Burke



Public domain photo


When it comes to learning new technology tricks, I’m definitely an old dog. But if there’s a way to learn a new trick in a program I already use, rather than having to master a whole new program, I’m thrilled.

In this case, the new trick is in Word.

Recently I stumbled on a post by Wendy Lyons Sunshine entitled How to Teach Word a Scrivener Trick on Jane Friedman’s always informative blog.

Scrivener is a popular and powerful writing program that number of TKZers use and swear by. One Scrivener feature that’s always appealed to me is the corkboard. You write each scene on a virtual index card. Then if you discover problems with timeline or continuity, you can easily rearrange scene order.

Unfortunately, despite taking several classes in Scrivener, I never mastered the learning curve.

So I continue to use Word since it’s the preferred program for most publications I write for.

For my novel first drafts, I write in scenes, separated by white space and asterisks. In later drafts, I divide scenes into chapters. Some chapters are only one scene long, others are three to five scenes.

A problem arises when I write scenes out of order. That leads to a jumble of scenes that need to be rearranged before completing the final draft.

This is where we pantsers get in trouble. You outliners in the audience, feel free to smirk here.

Eventually I have to find those out-of-order scenes buried in the 75-80K manuscript and, using cut and paste, reposition them where they should be. But locating those scenes, as well as their new position, can be a pain in the posterior.

Being old school, I write a summary of each scene on a 3X5 card. I lay the deck of cards on the living room floor and rearrange them as needed until the scene order is correct.

But…the Word doc still needs to be changed. That requires a lot of scrolling back and forth to find the right scene, highlight and cut it, then more scrolling to paste it into its new location.

Yes, outliners, I hear you snickering. If you had an outline, this problem wouldn’t come up.

But it turns out Word has a trick to mark scenes so they’re easy to find.

Now I’ll give the floor to Wendy since she explains it very well. She graciously granted permission to quote the following excerpt:

“Insert descriptive headings throughout the manuscript. You might insert a heading above each:

  • Chapter
  • Section
  • Scene
  • Any unit of content that needs to be easily identified or moved.

The goal is to clearly identify where a chunk of content begins. By default, that chunk ends where the next chunk (denoted by a heading of the same level) begins.

Assign styles:

Open Word “Styles” and assign each of the descriptive headings a standardized heading style. Assign “heading 1” style to chapter titles, then assign “heading 2” to other types of content.

Open the Navigation Pane

Now that headings are set up, open the navigation pane via View > Show > Navigation Pane. The Navigation Pane will display vertically along the left of the screen. 

Use the Navigation Pane two ways. First, you can navigate to specific content by clicking on that specific heading. Second, and most wonderfully, you can reorganize content by dragging and dropping the headings. Navigation Pane headings behave much like Scrivener’s index cards and are easily shuffled around.

Dragging a heading moves all associated content together in one bundle. This works beautifully across a large document and is far easier than trying to cut/paste/or drag blocks many pages apart.

Fiction writers can adjust this approach for their needs by crafting headings to describe POV, scene, location, interiority, backstory, etc.”

Thanks for making my life easier, Wendy!

After reading her instructions, I went through my WIP (working title Fruit of the Poisonous Tree) and chose Heading 2 for the beginning of each scene. Still using Heading 2,  I wrote a brief summary of that scene, so it stands out easily in the manuscript.

Now, within the Word doc, I can easily jump to the summary of each scene. No more wasted time, scrolling through pages, searching for the parts that need to be cut and pasted to different locations.

When the scenes are in correct order, then I’ll place the chapter breaks, using Heading 1.  That makes formatting easy for Kindle Direct Publishing and Draft2Digital.

Best of all, this new trick is within Word so I don’t need to learn a whole new program to accomplish what I need.

Photo credit: Lars Curfs CC-BY-SA-3.0

Now I’m still an old dog, but a happy one.


Many thanks to Wendy Lyons Sunshine and Jane Friedman for their kind permission to quote.



TKZers, were you aware of this capability in Word?

How do you keep track of scenes and rearrange them in your manuscript?

Do you know any other Word tricks to share?

How Did I Get Here?

With Memorial Day upon us, many folks will be on the road, listening to music or daydreaming while stuck in traffic. Nothing at all interesting about it. Though we want our stories to mimic real life, showing every moment or mile gets boring and repetitive fast.

My characters are constantly on the move. If I showed the entire drive, boat ride, or flight, I’d destroy the pacing. Instead, move characters from point A to B by skipping the boring parts.

When we jump ahead, tell the reader how much time has passed.

Nothing is more jarring than a character at home one minute and in the next paragraph they’re in a new location with no explanation of how they got there. Ground the reader in the first sentence. Or at least, in the first paragraph. Some writers include a scene break between paragraphs — either white space or *** — but that still does not absolve us from orienting the reader.

Show the characters getting into the car. Add a few lines of plot-related dialogue or trees zip past the window to show movement. And boom, they arrive at their new destination. Or, if nothing interesting happens, write something like…

Forty grueling minutes later without air conditioner, I arrived at the hotel with a wet scalp and my t-shirt molded to my chest.

A new chapter signals a time or POV change and/or a new setting.

It’s fine to speed past uneventful stretches in a story. In fact, it’s encouraged. Just be sure to give the reader a sense of how much time has lapsed, especially at the start of a new chapter. Even if we include a timestamp, we should still mention it as many readers will only recall whether the previous chapter took place during daylight or darkness.

Don’t make them have to backtrack to guess where or when the chapter begins.

If the action continues from the previous chapter, it’s still a good idea to set the scene with a brief mention of any time gaps or sensory cue to ground the reader. It doesn’t have to be complicated. “A few hours later” does the trick.

Establish who is present in every scene.

Nothing irks me more than a character appearing out of nowhere to offer a clue when they weren’t in the scene earlier. Too convenient. And frankly, obvious and lazy.

Again, adding a character to a scene needn’t be complicated…

The screen door slapped open, and Jack strolled out to the porch.

Now the reader knows he’s there, so when he offers that all-important clue, it makes sense within the scene.

Change in POV

As a reader and a writer, I don’t understand the fad of including the POV character’s name at the top of each chapter. In my opinion, it’s unnecessary. If we ground the reader in the character’s POV right away, they should know whose head they’re in without a label. If they don’t, then we’ve failed to set the scene. I prefer rotating POVs. They’re easy to follow and add to the overall rhythm of the story.

If you want to include the POV character’s name as a chapter heading, then by all means do so. It’s your story.

The main takeaway for this post is to orient the reader, whether the characters are on the move or we switch to a new POV.

For writers: How do you handle travel or signal a change in POV?

For readers: Have you ever been jarred out of a story due to a change in space or time?

Happy Memorial Day to TKZers in the U.S.!

Ten Tips for DIY Editing

by Debbie Burke


A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Montana Writers Rodeo and wrote a post about the fun, enlightening conference experience.

Today, here are the 10 tricks (plus one bonus tip) from my workshop at the Rodeo on how to edit your own writing.

Newer writer: “Why should I worry about spelling, grammar, and typos? The editor will fix them.”

Hate to break the news but that ain’t gonna happen. 

Being a professional means we’re responsible for quality of the book we turn out.

Whose name is on the cover?


If there are errors, who gets blamed?

We do.

That’s an important reason to hone our own editing skills.

Whether you go the traditional route or self-publish, a well-written story without typos and errors increases your chance of successful publication.

Due to layoffs, fewer editors work at publishing houses. Those who remain are swamped with other tasks, leaving little time to actually edit. In recent years, I’ve noticed an uptick in grammar, punctuation, and spelling goofs in traditionally published books.

If you indie-pub, a book with errors turns off readers. 

The overarching goal of authors is to make the writing so smooth and effortless that readers glide through the story without interruption.

We want them to become lost in the story and forget they’re reading.

How can we accomplish that? By self-editing to the best of our ability.

As a freelance editor, what do I look for when I review a manuscript?

  • Is the writing clear and understandable?
  • Do stumbling blocks and awkward phrases interrupt the flow?
  • Are there unnecessary words or redundancies?
  • Are there nouns with lots of adjectives?
  • Do weak verbs need adverbs to make the action clear?

Here are my 10 favorite guidelines. Please note, I said guidelines, not rules! 

1. Delete the Dirty Dozen Junk WordsGo on a global search-and-destroy mission for the following words/phrases:

It is/was

There is/was







Sort of


Turned to…

Began to…

Getting rid of unnecessary junk words tightens writing and makes stronger sentences.

Clear, concise narrative is your mission…with the exception of dialogue.

Characters ramble, stammer, repeat themselves, and backtrack. Natural, realistic-sounding dialogue uses colloquialisms, regional idiosyncrasies, ethnic speech patterns, etc.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

But, like hot sauce, a little goes a long way.

At the Rodeo, actor/director Leah Joki used excerpts from Huckleberry Finn to illustrate the power of dialogue.

But hearing it is different from reading it. If overdone, too much dialect can make an arduous slog. Imagine translating page after page of sentences like this one from Jim in  Huck Finn:

“Yo’ ole father doan’ know yit what he’s a-gwyne to do.”

  1. Set the stage – At the beginning of each scene or chapter, establish:

WHO is present?

WHERE are they?

WHEN is the scene happening?

If you ground the reader immediately in the fictional world, they can plunge into the story without wondering what’s going on.

  1. Naming NamesDistinctive character names help the reader keep track of who is who.

Create a log of character names used.

Easy trick: write the letters of the alphabet down the left margin of a page. As you name characters, fill in that name beside the corresponding letter of the alphabet. That saves you from winding up with Sandy, Samantha, Sarah, Sylvester.

Vary the number of syllables, e.g. Bob (1), Jeremiah (4), Annunciata (5).

Avoid names that look or sound similar like Michael, Michelle, Mickey.

Avoid rhyming names like Billy, Milly, Tilly.

  1. Precision Nouns, Vivid Verbs – Adjectives and adverbs are often used to prop up lazy nouns and verbs. Choose exact, specific nouns and verbs.

Instead of the generic word house, consider a specific noun that describes it, like bungalow, cottage, shanty, shack, chateau, mansion, castle. Notice how each conjures a different picture in the mind.

Photo credit: wikimedia CC BY 2.0 DEED

Photo credit: Christophe Meneboeuf CC-BY-SA 4.0 DEED

Instead of the generic verb run, try more descriptive verbs like race, sprint, dart, dash, gallop. That gives readers a vivid vision of the action.

  1. Chronology and Choreography – Establish the timeline.

Photo credit: IMDB database

Quentin Tarantino can get away with scenes that jump back and forth in time like a rabid squirrel on crack.

But a jumbled timeline risks confusing the reader. Unless you have a compelling reason to write events out of order, you’re probably better off sticking to conventional chronology.


Are actions described in logical order? Does cause lead to effect? Does action trigger reaction?

Chronology also applies to sentences. In both examples below, the reader can figure out what’s going on, but which sentence is simpler to follow?

  • George slashed Roger’s throat with the knife as he grabbed him from behind after he sneaked into the warehouse.
  • Knife in hand, George sneaked into the warehouse, grabbed Roger from behind, and slashed his throat.

In theatre, actors and directors block each scene. Clear blocking helps the reader visualize events and locations.

Establish where the characters are in relation to each other and their surroundings.

Map out doors, windows, cupboards, stairwells, secret passages, alleys, etc. where a bad guy might sneak up on the hero, or where the hero might escape.

Locate weapons.

Does the hero or the villain carry a gun or knife? Establish that before the weapon magically appears. 

Pre-place impromptu weapons (golf club, baseball bat, scissors) where the hero can grab them in an emergency. Or put them just out of reach to complicate the hero’s struggle.

  1. When to Summarize? When to dramatize?

Photo credit: Public Domain

Summarize or skip boring, mundane details like waking up, getting dressed, brushing teeth…unless the toothpaste is poisoned!

Dramatize important events and turning points in the story, such as:

  • New information is discovered.
  • A secret is revealed.
  • A character has a realization.
  • The plot changes direction.
  • A character changes direction.

7. Dynamic description – Make descriptive passages do double duty.

Rather than a driver’s license summary, show a character’s personality through their appearance and demeanor.

Static description: He had black hair, brown eyes, was 6’6″, weighed 220 pounds, and wore a gold shield.

Dynamic description: When the detective entered the interview room, his ‘fro brushed the top of the door frame. His dark gaze pierced the suspect. Under a tight t-shirt, his abs looked firm enough to deflect a hockey puck. 

Put setting description to work. Use location and weather to establish mood and/or foreshadow.

Static description: Birds were flying. There were clouds in the sky. An hour ago, the temperature had been 70 degrees but was now 45. She felt cold.

Dynamic description: Ravens circled, cawing warnings to each other. In the east, thunderheads tumbled across a sky that moments before had been bright blue. Rising wind cut through her hoody and prickled her skin with goosebumps.

  1. Read Out Loud – After reading the manuscript 1000+ times, your eyes are blind to skipped words, repetitions, awkward phrasing.

To counteract that, use your ears instead to catch problems.

Read your manuscript out loud and/or listen to it with text-to-speech programs on Word, Natural Reader, Speechify, etc. Your phone may also be able to read to you. Instruction links for Android and iPhone.

  1. Be Sensual – Exploit all five senses. Writers often use sight and hearing but sometimes forget taste, smell, and touch that evoke powerful memories and emotions in readers.

Think of the tang of lemon. Did you start to salivate?

Smell the stench of decomposition. Did you instinctively hold your breath and recoil?

Photo credit: Amber Kipp – Unsplash


Imagine a cat’s soft fur. Do your fingers want to stroke it? 








  1. What’s the Right (Write) Word? – English is full of boobytraps called homophones, words that sound the same but don’t have the same meaning.

Spellcheck doesn’t catch mixups like:



cite/site/sight, etc.

Make a list of ones that often trip you up and run global searches for them. Or hire a copyeditor/proofreader.

Bonus Tip – When proofreading, change to a different font and increase the type size of your manuscript. That tricks the brain into thinking it’s seeing a different document and makes it easier to spot typos.

Self-editing is not a replacement for a professional editor. But when you submit a manuscript that’s as clean and error-free as you can make it, that saves the editor time and that saves you $$$ in editing fees! 

Effective self-editing means a reader can immerse themselves in a vivid story world without distractions.  

And isn’t that what it’s all about? 


TKZers: What editing issues crop up in your own writing?

Do you have tricks to catch errors? Please share them.

When you read a published book, what makes you stumble?



One reason Debbie Burke likes indie-publishing: goofs are easy to correct. In Dead Man’s Bluff, she discovered FILES were circling an animal carcass instead of FLIES. Took two seconds to fix and republish.

Available at all major online booksellers. 


Yes or No Questions in Dialogue

Image by <a href="https://pixabay.com/users/geralt-9301/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=973992">Gerd Altmann</a> from <a href="https://pixabay.com//?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=973992">Pixabay</a>The other day, I stumbled across writing advice that was only half-true. The advice said to never use yes or no questions in dialogue. The writer made a valid point that yes/no questions stop the action. True. But that’s only half right.

If the MC asks a yes/no question, the action doesn’t need to stop if it’s in the right context, with body language that screams the opposite, or includes hints the character might be lying. We can also use “Yes/No, but” to maintain pace and the trajectory of the story and to create more conflict.

Let’s look at a few examples. I wrote these quick so no judgments. 😉

“Junior, did you steal another cookie from the jar?”

The little boy dragged the back of his wrist across chocolate-covered lips. “No, Mama.”

The story continues because the kid’s body language tells us he’s lying.

Big Dan stroked his daughter’s back. “Are you excited to marry Tommy?”

Yes, but not today.”

“We’re in the church!”

The wedding song blared from the speakers.

“Tell me what you want to do, honey.”


There’s more to that story, right?

“Why didn’t you come home last night, sis?”

“I stayed at a hotel.”

“Which one?”

“Why? What’s it matter?”

“Jason didn’t come home, either.”

“You think I slept with your husband?”

“Did you?”

“Are you seriously asking me if I’m having an affair with Jason?”

Notice how she responds with another question? Sounds a lot like guilt. Or maybe it’s anger. We’ll keep reading to find out.

“Is that blood?”

Silent, he wiped his cheek.

“You promised me.”

He strode into the kitchen, with the nag on his heels. “I did not kill our babysitter.”

“Then where is she? I won’t go through it again. The cops, the jury, the reporters.” A continual tap of her foot clenched his jaw. “If you’re innocent, give me the basement key.”

No.” He sniggered. “But it’s about time I gave you a private tour.”

Will he kill her, or is he innocent? We’ll keep reading to find out.

This last example I borrowed from one of my novels. The “no, but” construction is in bold. For clarity, Poe is a crow.

“You bought Poe a necklace,” he said as a statement, not a question. “After eleven p.m.”


“And you paid for the necklace?”

“Cost me three hundred bucks.”

“If you bought the jewelry, you could produce a receipt. Correct?”

Crap. “Not exactly.”

“Be honest with me. Did you steal the necklace?”

“No, sir. I swear I didn’t. Ask Poe if you don’t believe me.”

“Perhaps I should rephrase.” Praying hands tapped his lips. “Was the store open when you allegedly paid for the jewelry?”

I picked at my cuticles. “No, but I swear I didn’t steal it.”

“And the reason you couldn’t wait for the store to reopen is…?”

“Because Pissy Pants over there”—I jutted a thumb at the little diva—“wouldn’t even gimme twenty-four hours. If anyone should be in trouble, it’s him. Unless you condone blackmail?”

He rocked back on his heels. “Blackmail?”

So, can we use a yes/no question in dialogue? Absolutely… if it leads to more conflict. Otherwise, we’ve wasted precious real estate.

Thoughts? There is a ton of terrible or incomplete writing advice online. Have any new ones to share? Please explain why the advice doesn’t make sense.

One Word Holds Power

Have you ever received a text from a family member or close friend and knew something was wrong even though the words indicated the opposite?

I’ll show you what I mean with a real-life example.

The Kid planned to drive up to deliver ducks to the couple who lives at the top of our mountain, off-the-grid in a year-round camp surrounded by tall pines, oak, birch, and maple trees. By 10 a.m. that morning, we still hadn’t heard from The Kid, which is unusual. He’s always been an early riser.

So, I shot him a text. “Still planning to come up today?”

Several minutes dragged by before he responded. “Yes.”

My intuition tapped me on the shoulder. Something’s wrong. He never responds with one word. Besides, a simple yes didn’t give me enough information. If he brought all three grandkids, I would need to plan to feed six rather than three.

Plus, I let my little fur-babies run around my office during the day, but our grandchildren have a habit of leaving doors open. So, when they visit, it’s safer to leave them in their guinea pig habitat.

I texted back, “The Joe and the chicks coming, too?”

Another long pause. “Just The Joe.”

“You okay? You sound… I dunno… off.”

The Kid knows I’m tuned into him. Over the years I’ve learned to trust my intuition, and it has never failed me. Lying would be pointless.

“I was chasing ducks.”

“Okay, cool,” I texted, but something told me “chasing ducks” wasn’t the full story. Regardless, I didn’t want to push the issue via text. “I get the feeling you won’t be staying long.”

“We can stay for a bit.” The five-minute pause seemed to last twenty. “The longer the better. LOL”

And there it was—the first hint of the real reason he seemed off. Which he’d spill in person. It’s much harder to hide behind a false façade while staring into a concerned parent’s eyes. Though I’d never want to come across as pushy—he is a grown man, after all—I can’t take it when my kid is hurting. I don’t care how old he is. I’ll always be fiercely protective of his beautiful heart.

I do have a point to all this.

With that one simple word—Yes—I, the reader, knew to pay attention. That yes held power. That yes held unlimited power, more powerful than if he’d written an entire paragraph.

Writers should do the same. It’s a simple but effective way to add tension to a scene, cause a disturbance, and cue the reader to pay attention. The one-word, staccato sentence is a tool used for emphasis.

Run. Now.

It’s short and to the point. It calls attention to itself and exploits a reader’s emotions. Varying sentence structure holds a reader’s attention.

The following example looks like an exaggeration, but I once had to critique the first few pages of a novel written just like it.

As he stared at me, I could not look away. As I moved around the room, his stare held me hostage. As he moved closer, I told him to stop. As I backed away, he kept coming.

Every sentence began with “As” for three, never-ending pages. Not only is it grueling and repetitive, it’s annoying to read.


His wolf-like stare held me hostage. Stop. Please stop. He moved closer. I backed away. Dear God, no. Not again. My spine hit the wall, my fingers searching behind me for the doorframe.

See how much more immediate the second example sounds? We don’t want to overdo it, but nothing can replace a well-placed staccato sentence here and there.

Writers have access to a plethora of writing tips, but it’s important not to overlook simple ways to hone our craft, like the act of reading and sentence structure.

Thoughts? Let’s discuss. 


Warriors battle a ruthless animal trafficking ring in Yellowstone. They will protect the sacred lineage of American Buffalo by any means necessary.

Even murder.

Download a sample on Amazon


How To Use White Space

When I was first learning the craft, I studied many novels, searching for how the author drew me in, held me in suspense, and propelled me to turn the page. Still do. 😉 One of the things I noticed was their use of white space — the blank field around the words and paragraphs.

White space can help create drama, emotion, or add a quiet pause before the storm hits. With so many “rules” or guidelines, sometimes white space can get overlooked. Yet it’s a powerful tool when used with intent.

Let’s look at a few examples. The first two are from our own James Scott Bell.

Last Call from JSB:

“Yo,” she said. “Go back to your table, okay?”

He stiffened and his smile melted into his beard. “Real friendly.” He shook his head as he went back to his table. He turned his laptop around then sat with his back to her.

Just like the rest of the world.

Long Lost from JSB:

With the wind blowing outside, Stevie fell into a calm sleep. Deep like the desert night.

He woke up with a rough hand over his mouth. Pressing him down. Maybe it was Robert playing a game. But it wasn’t. It was something big.

A monster.


The eye is drawn to the last line in both examples. They’re sharp and dramatic when sectioned by white space.

In the Eyes of the Dead by Jordan Dane:

I wanted to fight it, but I couldn’t. The hopelessness of becoming a victim rushed over me like a floodgate opening. I nearly choked on the magnitude of it. Images of my ordeal bombarded me. I caught glimpses of another face. It all happened too fast, I wasn’t sure I could retain what I’d seen.

Just like last time.

Again, Jordan could’ve set the last line in the same paragraph, but it would lose its punch there.

We can also use white space to break up dialogue.

Here’s an example from Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman:

“Then you know that if I was a witch, I could turn myself into something else. Into a burrowing owl. I could fly out the smoke hole and go away into the night.”


“But I am not a witch. I am just a man. I am a singer. A yataalii. I have learned the ways to cure. Some of them. I know the songs to protect you against a witching. But I am not a witch.”

See how “silence” added to the drama? Had he put all the dialogue into one paragraph, it wouldn’t be as effective, even with an intriguing conversation.

The Killing Song by PJ Parish:

The cold nub that had formed in my gut was growing. I was never one to trust vague feelings. I was a reporter and trained to believe only what I could see, what I could prove.

But the feeling rising up and putting a choke hold on my heart now was real.

Mandy was gone.

That last line smacks you in the face — because it’s separated by white space.

Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes by Karin Slaughter:

The line finally moved, and Julia went into the first stall. She felt her pager vibrate as she started to unbutton her jeans. She didn’t scroll the number right away. She sat down on the toilet. She looked up at the ceiling. She looked at the posters taped to the back of the stall door. She finally looked down at the pager. She pressed the button to scroll the number.


Her heart broke into a million pieces.


Julia looked up, trying to keep her tears from falling. She sniffed. She counted to a slow one hundred. She looked down again, because maybe she was wrong.



The repetition also draws you in. If the author were to continue too long, the rhythm would lose its value. When done with intent, it’s dramatic and effective.

The last example is from my new thriller, Savage Mayhem (releases once my designer completes my cover).

A hair-raising screech stopped me mid-stride, my heartbeat quickened to a fast pitter-patter, pitter-patter, pitter-patter. Quaking aspen leaves trembled as we passed. Night owls slalomed through the trees, oarlike wings emitting a whoosh with each stroke. To my left, sticks crunched under heavy paws. Or hooves.




Here, I used white space for a dramatic pause and to draw attention to each individual threat. Which allows the reader to wonder. I also used Onomatopoeia words to deepen the scene.

White space can help fix long, rambling passages of text, pacing issues, and story rhythm. It’s a tool we should never overlook. Use the precious real estate to your advantage.

With the exception of mine (this is NOT a shameless plug), I recommend all these books. They’re fabulous.

Have you read any of them? Did you notice the white space while reading? Do you pay attention to white space in your writing?

First Page Critique – The Mark

by Debbie Burke


Good morning and welcome to the first page submission from another Brave Author who says the page is in the crime genre. Read and enjoy then we’ll discuss.

  The Mark

Pink hair, tattooed hands, open casket. That’s all he remembered. Well, not quite all he remembered. He remembered his cell phone which he had forgotten to turn off, violating the sacred service with its demand for attention.  Afterwards, standing at her gravesite, he looked skyward, muttered a few obscene words and prayed for forgiveness. 

Hanagan sat and sipped the espresso. The wall mounted tv in the bar was showing early morning futures charts on the screen. Hanagan was a mid level options trader for a company called Maverick Trading. He’d had a good year trading other people’s money which was why he sat in this coffee bar waiting for someone named De Vries.  The man had called him minutes ago, apologizing for his tardiness and promised he’d be there within 15 minutes.

Jensen De Vries had spent all night laboring on a 60 by 80 painting of an early 20th century abstract. Several shades of blue juxtaposed with bright iridescent streaks of red. Blackened blocks of burnt sienna guided the eyes to the hero marks that often identify the style of a painter. He moved his eyes back and forth from the canvas to a photo now projected onto his laptop screen. The photo of the twentieth century abstract that was last reported to be in a family estate somewhere in Portugal.

The coffee shop was not far from where De Vries painted. A rent controlled studio in a warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen.  De Vries entered the bar and scanned the crowd looking for a bright blue blazer that would identify Hannagan.

He began to approach the man but hesitated. Another person had just sat down to join Hannagan. A woman he did not trust.

Earlier that day, in the suburbs of Greenwich, Connecticut,Maria De Vries stood in a darkened living room holding a gun. The room smelled like bleach, as if a crew had cleaned up any incriminating evidence.  She turned towards the seated man and began to tell him what she was going to do and the order in which it had to be done. He didn’t like her patronizing tone, but kept his thoughts under control. He swiveled clockwise to a side table and selected a cigar from a humidor. He raised the cold cigar to his nose and inhaled the earthy aroma.


Let’s get to work.

Brave Author, your writing is solid and skillful. Your descriptions are vivid and full of excellent sensory detail. I can immediately visualize the body in the casket and hear the rude intrusion of a cell phone at a funeral. Iridescent red, blue, and burnt sienna are strong visuals. The smells of bleach and an unlit cigar are palpable.

Now the nitty gritty:

The first scene is in an unspecified cemetery and the point-of-view (POV) character isn’t identified. It’s in italics, indicating perhaps a preface.

The next scene switches to a coffee bar and an options trader named Hannagan (BTW, Hannagan is spelled two different ways) told through his POV. He’s waiting to meet an artist Jensen De Vries who’s late for their appointment.

Suddenly the location and POV switches to De Vries working on a painting in his studio in Hell’s Kitchen. He then heads for his appointment at the coffee bar with Hannagan but hesitates because he sees Hannagan with a woman he doesn’t trust.

Then the reader is yanked to earlier that day, in yet different location in Connecticut, with another new character, Maria De Vries, holding a gun on yet another new unnamed character who’s about to smoke a cigar and in whose POV we are now.

That’s SEVEN characters, FIVE location changes, and FOUR points of view in a single page. 

This jumps around like a 30-second film trailer for an action movie that might have a title like Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Each scenario by itself could be compelling: a funeral; a mysterious meeting with a stranger; a woman who can’t be trusted; a woman (not sure if she’s the same woman) holding a gun at what may be a murder scene. Each one raises questions the reader wants answers to.

Yes, an author needs to instantly grab attention. But a precisely aimed bullseye is more effective than wildly scattered birdshot.

Trying to cram in too much information all at once overwhelms, confuses, and frustrates the reader. S/he feels whiplashed and never has a chance to become grounded in any single character, storyline, time period, or setting. 

My strong suggestion is to pull back and look at the totality of your story. The connections among these scenes will undoubtedly be revealed later. Each has intriguing potential. But, as presented in this first page, they’re a discombobulated jumble.

Ask these questions:

  1. Which one of these characters is the most compelling?
  2. Which one of the conflicts makes the best launch point for this book?
  3. Which situation will make a reader the most curious to turn the page?

Assessments like this are difficult to make when an author is too close to the story. Don’t feel bad–we’ve all been there.

If you’re unsure how to answer the questions, find an editor, critique group, or beta reader to objectively review the book.

Listen to their feedback carefully. What scenario captures their attention the most? Which elements appeal to them and why? Then decide on the best time, place, space, and character to kick off the story.

When you rewrite the first scene, slow it way down. Give the reader a chance to explore that world, form an impression of the POV character, and become curious about the conflict/problem.

Your quick thumbnail character sketches are well done but too short. The descriptions are vivid and full of sensory detail. The situations are intriguing. Expand on them. You don’t need to rush so much. There’s a whole book ahead to add more plot lines, characters, and complications.

Brief, punchy scenes with jump cuts can be effective but not before the foundation has been established and the reader is firmly enmeshed in the story.

Brave Author, your skills are good, and you have all the necessary elements for an exciting crime story. I’m sure you’ll find the right beginning that fascinates readers so much that they’ll want to keep turning pages. Best of luck!


TKZers, what suggestions do you have for this Brave Author? Which of these scenarios strikes you as the best place to start?


Please visit DebbieBurkeWriter.com to enter a drawing for a Legacy Wood Deep Fake Sapphire Pen (hand-crafted by Steve Hooley) and a BONUS FREE Short Story when you join my reading group.

How To Write a Dance Scene

I was eavesdropping on Quora again and stumbled across a thread about how to write a dance scene. Because I included a sensual dance in the WIP, the question piqued my interest. I’ve written dance scenes before, but my characters spent most of their time spying on bad guys. Nothing like the scene I wrote in the WIP (which also ties into the plot).

The writers who responded on Quora had such great advice, I had to share.

Each answer attributed to the writer, of course.

Original question: How can you describe a dance in writing?

Emma Thomas, Novelist wrote:

Here’s two examples of how not to do it.

She stepped onto the floor and awed them all with her dancing.

Under-descriptive. Dancing is such a physical and emotional movement that you have to balance those two in your writing and neither happened here (Sue: She means in the above example).

She gazed across the lacquered wooden tiles and, with a sudden burst of courage that she hadn’t known she’d possessed, stepped onto the dance floor. As the thrumming rhythm of classical music whispered into her ears, she began to dance.

Sliding her right foot back and the other one forward, she dropped low so that her dress brushed the ground, then sprang back up again, so quickly that she got whiplash. She threw her arms out and waved them from side to side, perfectly in tune with the beat, before jumping into the air. Her dress spun around her and for a moment it felt like she was flying … then the ground was beneath her again.

That hurt as much to write as it did to read. I shouldn’t be telling the reader each one of the movements that our dancer makes, unless I want an incredibly monotonous one-hundred page instruction manual on how to jump up and down and fling your hands in the air, like what the MC is doing here. Did you catch that? Possibly not; it sounded like it had taken an hour for her to dance when it was really just a split-second.

When you write about someone dancing, make sure that it’s obvious. It’s okay to say the word “dance.” Not everything has to be a ten-page description — but not everything can be a one-word summary, either. Tie in enough of the surroundings to establish a mood and a sense of place. Lastly, make sure that the dance conveys what you want it to — if it’s careless, make it sound careless. If it’s more meaningful, make it sound like that.

Let’s try this again.

She was dancing. Arms flailing in the sky above her, she whirled around and whooped her happiness into the sweat-stained air. Foot forward. Back. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d done this — why had she ever stopped? A hand grabbed hers and she was swung backward, dipped low, then soaring into the air, the flashing colors momentarily blinding her … she touched ground again and skidded to a smiling, breathless halt.

That’s a rough paragraph but it conveys what it needs to. It established a sense of place, action, and a connection with the dancer. Not under-descriptive or over-descriptive, just effective.

Aaaand that’s it. Hope it helped.

Shreya Pandey wrote:

Do not describe each and every dance step in detail. It’ll get complex and it’ll sound very mechanical. Describe one step, then follow it up by describing how a character felt while they did it. Do they feel dizzy? Happy? Feel an adrenaline rush? Feel scared?

Describe what they see. Does the room start to spin? Do they see the audience looking at them in awe? Describe the way their body moves. Is it effortless? Are they having trouble remembering the steps? Is any part of their body sore?

Describe the atmosphere. Are they dancing at a party? What kind of music is playing in [t]he background? What kind of beats does it have? Can they fee the bass thumping through their body? Is it a popular song? How many people are there? Are they dancing in a crowd, or alone on a stage? What are they wearing?

Give meaning to the dance. It must be significant if you are introducing it in your text. Why is it significant? Is it about how liberated, happy and care free the character feels when they dance? Is it an intimate dance sequence the character shares with someone they love? Does the dance bring back memories? Is it demonstrating their hard work? Is it something they are doing to lose some steam? Do they have a purpose behind it?

The dance scene is always more than just the movement of the character’s body. It is significant to the plot in some way. You need to subtly highlight that significance. At most, if it isn’t anything serious, it can be used to manipulate the reader’s senses. Make them feel, hear, touch, smell, move, see, etc. Transport them. Make them feel as if they are dancing, or as if they are the audience and they are watching someone dance from up close. Writing the perfect atmosphere perfectly is the key.

And my favorite answer…

James Sams, Writer/Editor wrote:

I’d like to caution you against “over describing”. Books are not movies. We can see every step of the Tango in a movie, but no one wants to read what every step is. If you write things like…

“He moved his left foot backward in a smooth motion, sliding across the slick floor. She slid her right foot forward, chasing his retreating foot with hers, like a fox on the hunt. Dipping forward and looking into her eyes, his fingers tightened on her ribs as his left foot came forward again, surprising her foot and chasing it back. They stopped, toe to toe, and he pulled her hips in close to his.

Threatening to brush his lips against hers, he looked to the left, and then to the right. She mimicked him, turning her head opposite. To the right, then to the left.

He pushed her away as though she were too terrible, yet to[o] wonderful, to be near, yet he held on to her left hand with his right, catching her as their arms pulled taut and spinning her out and away. Then he reeled her back in, unable to give her up.

She fell into him, his strong arms wrapping her tight, protecting her before casting her out again.”

… you can get away with it for a paragraph, maybe two. Even with the nice similes and small details, it will soon become agony for a reader to get through. You have become a puppet master, forcing the reader to imagine each foot, each hand, each head motion exactly the way you want it to be. Readers don’t like that. They like to use their imaginations. They want you to give them a coloring book outline and then hint at what colors they should use when they color it in with their imagination.

To give them those subtle colors, only give sweeping descriptions, and add in the senses. Put in the emotions, even if they are only faux representative ones [that] describe the types of movement.

The best thing you can do with a dance, is keep it short, at least in your description. Focus on the characters’ feelings, fears, hopes and thoughts, and then come back for another quick description. If you took the dance I wrote above and stretched it out for the full dance, describing every move in detail, I guarantee even an editor will begin skipping over it as they read. Even if you don’t give every little dance step, it will be too long and people will just let their eyes slide over it, looking for the place you stop describing and get back to the story.

Don’t be afraid to use a dance, just remember, readers are reading for the characters and their thoughts, feelings, and stories. The descriptions, backgrounds, clothes, etc. need to always take a back seat.

I hope that helped.

What do you think, TKZers? Have you written a dance scene? If so, did you follow these guidelines? Any other tips to share?

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 Best.Thrillers.com (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?