How Right Do Your Characters Have to Be?

How Right Do Your Characters Have to Be?
Or, who are you going to upset or offend with this book?
Terry Odell

Clichés are to be avoided, they tell us. So are stereotypes. (Still haven’t figured out who “they” is, but my grandfather apparently knew them well, as they were always making mistakes he’d get blamed for.)

But a cliché can provide a shortcut to understanding or visualizing a scene, and a stereotype might offer a shortcut to getting a handle on a character. Nothing is all good or all bad.

Publishers are looking for diversity these days. I’m going out on a limb here and saying very few of us belong to more than a small number of different ‘groups.’ Gender, ethnicity, religion, age. If we want diversity in our books, we’re going to be writing about people different from ourselves.

How do we get it “right?” Is there even a “right?” Can we say all golden retrievers are happy, people-loving dogs? Are all Staffordshire terriers dangerous? Same goes for people. Yet we categorize and generalize.

Years and years ago, my mom became good friends with our next-door neighbor. The two of them went to the beach one day, and the neighbor found out my mom was Jewish. She was surprised—maybe even shocked. Her words: “I’d never have thought you were Jewish. You’re so nice.” The neighbor wasn’t from Los Angeles, where we lived, and her exposure to diversity was obviously limited. Her perceptions were ruled by her experience. I still wonder if she and my mom would have been friends had the neighbor known at their first meeting that my mom was Jewish.

In my Mapleton books, Sam and Rose Kretzer are Jewish, and I’m sure many people think some of their behaviors are wrong. They’re bringing their own perceptions and experiences, and making generalizations. Rose is a conglomerate of many of my relatives. Trying to get a Jewish character right is next to impossible, one simple reason being there are so many different sects or denominations, and there’s diversity within each.

Today, there are warnings about getting diverse characters right to the point that some authors are hiring sensitivity readers, or at least running pertinent sections by members of whatever group their character belongs to. I have a trans character in one of my Mapleton books, and I approached a trans author to make sure I got it right. Was it right for everyone? I don’t know. I haven’t seen any negative comments, so maybe I did. Also, the character was a minor one, and didn’t have a lot of page time.

I do know that after my first few books, which were (and still are because I’m not updating them) populated predominantly by white cis characters, I began including more diversity. Would I ever try a protagonist who’s substantially different from me? Other than writing males, I don’t think so. There’s too much to get wrong, and too many people who are offended by mistakes.

Something as simple as age is another thing to try to get right (which is what sparked the idea for this post).

I get the New York Times’ daily digest in my email, and a headline saying It’s Fun to Be Alive’: 13 Older Photographers Show Us Their Work — and Themselves piqued my interest, so I opened it. Older, eh? I’m older than most of them. I’m not pretending to be any age other than mine, but it’s being put into a box that’s the problem.

A while back, I agreed to read a chapter that was giving an author acquaintance trouble. He’d included a secondary character who I’m sure was meant to be a mood-lightener. Stereotypical elderly woman. Hairnet, orthopedic shoes, walking stick, thick glasses—the works. Her age? 65. I came down fairly hard on the author for that one. I’m ten-plus years older than that character, and that kind of a stereotype bugs the heck out of me.

That, for me, is what we as authors need to consider when we’re creating and describing any character, be it their age, gender, ethnicity, religion, dietary habits—the list is endless. And these days, people are eager to jump down your throat if your description deviates in the slightest from their perception.

What about you, TKZers? How do you get things right for your characters? Or don’t you care how readers will perceive them because you’ll never please everyone?

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

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

Plan B

By Debbie Burke


In Montana, Labor Day weekend is summer’s last hurrah for camping, hiking, and outdoor recreation.

It’s also the date for “Rumble by the Bay,” a classic car and truck show where the streets of Bigfork are closed to display more than a hundred vintage vehicles with glossy enamel paint, fender skirts, and wide whitewalls.

At the same time in Bigfork, local authors Leslie Budewitz, Mark Leichliter, and I were preparing for our panel discussion about crime fiction entitled “Mystery and Murder Under the Big Sky.”

This was our fourth year doing the popular panel. In the past, we followed Plan A: we spoke from a covered pavilion stage while the audience sat in Adirondack chairs on a large lawn adjacent to the bakery/bar that hosts us. While the lovely Swan River flowed past, they enjoyed pastries and beverages and we revealed how we kill people on the page.

Photo credit: Kay Bjork

Here’s a photo of a previous year.

I also wrote about the gathering in this post.

For three years, Plan A was successful.

However, weather doesn’t pay attention to human plans.

And this year, it rained.

While gearheads across the street rushed to put up convertible tops, we writers moved to Plan B.

We and our audience got cozy under the awning in the bar’s patio. 

A lady I didn’t know approached holding my book Deep Fake Double Down and asked me to sign it. Her name was Susan but that’s all I knew about her. Then she settled in with the rest of the audience.

In the past, we had talked from the stage and needed sound equipment. Now we sat at chairs and tables in an area small enough that people could hear us without mics.

Plan B worked great. The atmosphere was intimate, like a gathering of friends chatting about reading and books. The questions were intelligent and thought-provoking. People felt free to comment and expand the discussion.

Susan mentioned I was scheduled to appear at her book club that’s led by one of my Zumba teachers. I said, “Oh, cool. I’m looking forward to the Zumba Book Club.” The audience laughed because apparently no one had heard of a Zumba book club. That also led to a discussion about how authors often find readers in unexpected places.

Leslie, Mark, and I were thrilled to enjoy spirited interaction with avid readers who share the interests and concerns that our books address.

Mark Leichliter, Debbie Burke, Leslie Budewitz.
Behind us, the Swan River is flowing by.

We weren’t performers elevated on a stage but guests at a book club in the home of a gracious host.

In prior years, car show folks had drifted through on their way to the bar, causing a bit of distraction. Of course, we want the venue to make money, but that lent a different tone to our presentation.

This year, Leslie made the observation: “…a good percentage of the audience had come to hear us. They didn’t just happen on us and that increased their engagement. The rain may have washed away the other folks and left us with that core audience.”

I can’t speak for the others, but my book sales were better than in past years!

One attendee commented to Mark, “It was like the three of you were in my living room.”

Sometimes Plan B turns out better than Plan A.

Post script: After our presentation and book signing, the sun came out and we enjoyed a stroll through real steel classics and shiny chrome. Here’s what I have my eye on as soon as my books sell a million copies.









Post-post script: Yesterday I met with the Zumba Book Club and Susan was there. I offered a Steve Hooley Deep Fake Sapphire pen as the prize for people who signed up for my newsletter (thanks again, Steve!). As I scanned the entry slips, I recognized Susan’s last name and asked her, “Are you related to Dr. Fxxxxx?” 

“That was my husband.” 

Dr. Fxxxxxx had been our wonderful dentist for many years until he passed away. He was so gentle that my father-in-law would fly all the way from San Diego to Montana for Dr. Fxxxxx to do his dental work. I was happy to share that story with Susan and it obviously pleased her to hear that patients still remembered her husband’s kindness. 

Time for the pen drawing. The winner was (drumroll) Susan Fxxxxx. 

You can’t always plan a happy outcome. Sometimes it just happens. 


TKZers: Did you ever need to change plans at the last minute for an event, either as a presenter or as an attendee?

Did the change cause things to go awry?

Or did a rain cloud show a silver lining?



“This is a truly unique mystery with a distinctive, all-too-plausible premise and memorable characters.” – BookLife Prize

Available at major booksellers at this link.

What Spelling Bee Taught Me About Writing

“Handle a book as a bee does a flower, extract its sweetness but do not damage it.” –John Muir

* * *

If you haven’t played the NY Times Spelling Bee game, here’s a brief intro:

The game involves making words out of seven letters. I suppose one reason I’m attracted to it is how the game is presented: Each of the seven letters is inside a hexagon-shaped cell. Six of the cells surround a central one, and it all looks like a honeycomb. Clever, eh?

The idea is to make words (at least four letters in length) using the letters. You can use a letter more than once, but you must use the center letter in every word you make. For example, the word “TAUNT” wouldn’t work in the example above because it doesn’t contain the letter G. “GAUNT” would be a good word.

You get one point for a four-letter word. If the word is longer than four letters, you get a point for each letter in the word. If you use all seven letters in a word, you get the number of points for the word plus another seven. It’s called a pangram. In the example above “UNTAGGED” would be a pangram.

As you rack up points, you move up a scale from Beginner to Genius. If you get to the Genius stage, a screen pops up telling you how wonderful you are. If you continue and get every possible word, you achieve Queen Bee status. (Very hard to do without using hints.)

* * *

My husband and I play this game almost every day while we eat lunch. We figure it takes both our brains to get to Genius. In our experience, we usually move up the scale and get one step short of Genius, but getting that last step is hard. Sometimes we make it and other times we don’t. So why am I telling you all this? What does it have to do with writing?

It’s because of a “boys in the basement” pattern that’s developed.

* * *

If we haven’t reached Genius by the time I finish lunch, I’m ready to move on. I may stay around for a few minutes, but I have other things to do. (My husband, on the other hand, will diligently stare at the letters for much longer, and he sometimes gets us to that last step by himself.)

I leave the table and either clean up a little in the kitchen or retire to my office to invent some new disaster to throw at the characters in my WIP. However, in either case, I’ve put the word game out of my mind, and I’m thinking of the next thing on the schedule.

Lately, I’ve noticed a phenomenon that occurs frequently during these “moving on” sessions: As I’m dealing with another item on my to-do list, a word will pop into my mind. It’s not something I was thinking about or trying to come up with. It just appears.

For example, a while back I had stopped working on the puzzle and was putting dishes in the dishwasher when the word “EJECTABLE” popped into my mind. Now that’s not a word I think of very often. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember ever having heard of it before. I wasn’t even sure it was an actual word. I turned to my husband. “Does ‘ejectable’ work in the puzzle?”

Yep. And it was a pangram.

* * *

The process seems to be that I stare at the letters, make words, and keep trying until I’m convinced I’ve made all the words I can possibly make. I walk away, my brain relaxes, and those little neuron pathways that were blocked by my mental overexertion clear up. Then a word slips through and presents itself in tiny little neon letters.

I’ve noticed the same thing happens when I work on a tough crossword puzzle. I’ll get stuck on a clue and can’t find a solution, so I put the puzzle aside. When I return to it the next day, I immediately think of the word I was looking for. If that had happened once or twice, I wouldn’t be mentioning it now. But it happens often enough that I’m wondering how to consistently apply this to writing.

* * *

Is the same process possible as we pound away at developing our stories? Like so many cells in a honeycomb, the answer we’re looking for may be there, but we can’t seem to dig it out. We have to let it come to us.

So TKZers: Do you play word games? What are your favorites? Have you had a similar experience of ideas popping up only after you start another project? Do you deliberately try to use a shift in focus to get those boys in the basement into the game?


Minor Characters to the Rescue

by James Scott Bell

Today’s post is brought to you by the new Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Justice, now available for pre-order at the ridiculously low deal price of just $1.99. (Outside the U.S., go to your Kindle store and search for: B0CHMTRC6N)

Which brings me to the subject of minor characters (you’ll find out why in a moment).

First, let’s define terms. Though you’ll find variations on how fictional character types are defined, I’ll break it down this way: Main, Secondary, and Minor.

Main characters are those who are essential to the plot and usually appear in several scenes.

Secondary characters are supporting players who have a more limited, though sometimes crucial, role.

Minor characters are those who are necessary for a scene or two, and may only appear once, twice or a few times throughout.

For example, in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the main characters are Sam Spade, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Joel Cairo, and Casper Gutman. They recur throughout the book.

Effie Perrine, Sam Spade’s secretary, is a secondary character, who provides information and plot relief later in the story.

Wilmer Cook, Gutman’s enforcer, is a minor character, as is Tom Polhaus, Spade’s cop friend.

I call secondary and minor characters “spice.” They can add just the right touch of tasty flavor to a story. But if they’re bland or stereotypical, you’re wasting the ingredient.

So where do you start? By giving each one a tag (something physical) and a singular way of talking.

The Maltese Falcon is a masterclass in characterization. The following descriptions are for main characters, but I include them as examples of Hammett’s orchestration—making each character different in order to increase conflict.

Early on, Sam Spade gets a visit at his office from an odd little fellow named Joel Cairo.

Mr. Joel Cairo was a small-boned dark man of medium height. His hair was black and smooth and very glossy. His features were Levantine. A square-cut ruby, its sides paralleled by four baguette diamonds, gleamed against the deep green of his cravat. His black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips.

Cairo has a distinct way of speaking:

“May a stranger offer condolences for your partner’s unfortunate death?”


“Our conversations in private have not been such that I am anxious to continue them.”

Then we have the “fat man,” Casper Gutman, who—

was flabbily fat with bulbous pink cheeks and lips and chins and neck, with a great soft egg of a belly that was all his torso, and pendant cones for arms and legs. As he advanced to meet Spade all his bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown.

When he talks to Spade, he sounds like this:

“Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. And I’ll tell you right out that I’m a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk.”


“You’re the man for me, sir, a man cut along my own lines. No beating about the bush, but right to the point. ‘Will we talk about the black bird?’ We will. I like that, sir. I like that way of doing business. Let us talk about the black bird by all means…”

You get the idea. Physicality and speech pattern. Tags and dialogue. Even for minor characters. In Falcon, Wilmer Cook, the “gunsel,” plays a small but important role. Hammett describes him only as a “youth” wearing a “cap.” When he talks, he tries too hard to sound like a tough guy.

Dwight Frye as Wilmer Cook in the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon

The boy raised his eyes to Spade’s mouth and spoke in the strained voice of one in physical pain: “Keep on riding me and you’re going to be picking iron out of your navel.”

Spade chuckled. “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter,” he said cheerfully. “Well, let’s go.”

And while we’re on the subject of minor characters, I want to talk about how they can save your bacon when you close in on the end of your book. This happened to me as I was finishing the aforementioned Romeo’s Justice. My plot was rolling along nicely, unfurling several threads of mystery and suspense, strategically woven into the plot according to my outline. But when I got to the end, there was one thread that was still dangling. I needed to clear this up for the reader. But how?

I made up a minor character to explain it.

But wait, didn’t I just say this was at the end? You can’t just bring in some character at the very end, out of the blue, to save your keister, can you?

Of course you can! All you have to do is work that character into an early scene or two, setting him up for the big reveal.

I thumbed through my hard copy of the first draft and located a place in Act I where I could intro the character. I ended up with a minor character who I’m sure is going to show up in a future book.

This is what’s fun about being an author. You create your world and your people, and you remain sovereign over the proceedings. You can go back and move things around as you see fit. And then you can put the book up for pre-order.

What’s your approach to creating minor characters? 

Empathy, Emotional Resonance, and Fear

Emotion is at the heart of what makes fiction connect with a reader. People read for various reasons, but feeling suspense, or romantic love,  or a sense of wonder, or the suspicion arising from a mysterious crime, etc., and sometimes several of these at the same time, is a big part of what keeps a reader turning pages. Wanting to experience those feelings vicariously with the characters, and at the same time, experiencing the tension when those feelings are withheld or jeopardized by conflict.

In today’s Words of Wisdom excerpts, Joe Moore looks at how to create empathy so your reader will become attached to those characters, Clare Langley-Hawthorne discusses the importance of proving emotional resonance for the reader with your characters, and Laura Benedict considers the connection readers have to us via our fears.

All the posts are worth reading in full, and are linked from the date at the bottom of each excerpt.

So if empathy is the key to your reader becoming attached to your characters, what is a proven method for creating emotions?

Let’s say you want your character to be afraid—to experience fear. You could always just tell the reader that he or she is scared. That would mean little or nothing because not only is it telling, it paints an unclear picture in the mind of the reader. Scared could mean a 100 different things to a 100 different people. Now ask yourself what it felt like when you’ve experienced fear. Perhaps you were in a parking garage late at night. The sound of your high heels seemed as loud as hammer strikes. The shadows were darker than you remembered. You could see your car but it appeared miles away. Then you hear someone cough. But there’s no one around. You pick up the pace. Your heels become gunshots. You shift your gaze like a gazelle that sensed a stalking big cat as you hug your purse to your chest. Your pulse quickens. Breathing becomes shallow and frantic. Palms sweat cold. Legs shake. You press your key fob and your car’s lights flash but your vision blurs. You hear a strange cry escape your throat—a sound you’ve never made before. Your car is only yards away but you don’t feel like you’re getting closer. Were those your footfalls echoing off concrete walls or were they coming from the shadows? You reach for the door handle, your hand shaking, fear gripping you like a cloak of ice.

Here’s my point. It may not have been in a dark parking garage late at night but we’ve all felt it. Paralyzing, heart-stopping fear. In your story, you need to have your character feel the same. Describe it so that your reader will empathize. So that their hands will shake and their chest will tighten. Make them sweat, even if it’s only in their imagination. Approach every emotion your characters feel in the same manner. Use your life experience. How did you feel the first time you felt love, hate, jealousy, rejection. If you are honest in expressing true emotions through your characters, your reader will have empathy for them, and very possibly come to list them as their all-time favorite.

Joe Moore—August 3, 2016

Almost every book I’ve failed to finish or which has left me disappointed, has failed because I haven’t been able to care enough about the characters. Even in books where the plot has become thin or events have stretched credulity, emotionally deep and resonant characters have kept me reading.

In some ways, the process of providing emotional resonance mirrors the way a writer describes a character because it focuses on the feelings the character inspires in a reader. Those feelings don’t have to always be warm and fluffy, but they do need to strike a chord with a reader. The most powerful characters stay with a reader long after the book is finished.

All too often at writing classes or conferences the pieces that I’ve read or critiqued have had one major failing – the characters themselves. They are often flat on the page, cliched or simply do not ring true. So how do you create emotionally complex, relatable and ultimately resonant characters? Maybe the best starting point is to identify what not to do and work up from there.

Many new writers may feel the urge to create a quirky, one-of-a-kind character or perhaps they hope to create characters similar to those that have proven most popular in their genre (here’s where the recovering alcoholic, down at heel PI often comes into play). In either case, a writer should beware of using standard character tropes and cliches as well as going too far the other way by creating the most ‘out there’ character who sounds nothing like anyone a reader would ever meet in real life. if a character is nothing more that a series of quirks or tics then a reader is going to be just as dissatisfied as if the character is little more than a carbon copy of the stock-standard genre character. The key is (I think) to get into the head and emotions of a character in a way that displays the writer’s own unique perspective. In some ways, perhaps you have to place a little of yourself in each character (maybe not in a literal sense but certainly in an emotional sense).

Striking a chord in readers can be tricky as each reader also brings their own perspective, background, and emotions to the books they are reading. One character’s actions may pack an emotional punch for some readers and yet leave others cold. I find, for example, that parents in books often pack a huge emotional whallop for me, especially in books like Wonder or The Fault in our Stars. If I’d read these books when I was younger, I suspect different characters would have evoked a very different kind of emotional reaction. Yet there are some universal truths out there and characters that evoke strong emotions will go on to have wider resonance.

It’s hard to provide any kind of definitive ‘tip list’ for creating this kind of emotional resonance, simply because it is an illusive target (we only know it when we feel in the gut) but I think some of the elements include:

  • Going deep within a character’s psyche to understand their motivations;
  • Drawing upon your own past experiences and interactions to add depth;
  • Using action as well as interaction to draw out a character rather than description alone (this helps readers experience a character rather than just reading about them in a static sense);
  • Finding the humanity within all the characters (even your villains);
  • Exploring the inhumanity within all your characters (we all have weaknesses and foibles, prejudices and flaws that make us who we are – even if we’re not proud of them);
  • Looking for the universality of experience that strikes a chord in you the writer as you describe your characters and take them on their unique journey through your book;
  • Avoiding thinking or describing characters in terms of what they should be but rather what they are – try to step back from relying on conventions or mimicking other writer’s characters and remember no one is superhuman or a psychopath in their own mind.

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—August 15, 2016

When we write about things that frighten us, chances are there will be lots of readers who share our fears. We can exploit (terrible word, but I mean it in the nicest way) those fears and redeem ourselves through characters that may suffer for a while, but journey to overcome their fears or terrifying situations.

As humans we all have fears. They don’t have to be big, bloody fears, or deeply felt emotional fears to propel or inspire a story. They can be as small as a spider or as microscopic as damaged chromosomes. Resonance is the important thing.

Here’s a list of fears that immediately spark stories of all sorts for me:

Fear of death.

Fear of being submerged in water.

Fear of my embarrassing secrets being revealed in public.

Fear of losing a child.

Fear of being blackmailed.

Fear of being taken advantage of.

Fear of success.

Fear of being a failure.

Fear of a bug crawling in one’s ear or nose.

Fear of being watched in a lighted house from the darkness outside.

Fear of being pulled over by a fake cop on a lonesome road.

Fear of being mistaken for a criminal.

Fear of home invasion.

Fear of the apocalypse.

Fear of snakes in the house.

Fear of roaming packs of dogs.

Fear of being watched through a computer’s camera.

Fear of being kidnapped.

Fear of a child being hurt or being killed by one’s carelessness.

Fear of being judged and found wanting.

Fear of being too happy, because it can’t last.

Fear of one’s eye(s) being gouged out.

Fear of the supernatural.

Fear of random violence.

Fear of cancer.

Fear of loving too much.

Fear of poverty.

Fear of seeing open, bleeding wounds.

Fear of corpses.

Fear of being wrong.

Fear of betrayal.

Fear of snarky groups of teenage girls.

Fear of being vulnerable.

Fear of losing a lover.

Fear of losing a friendship.

As you can see from the list, many of these fears are close to being universal for humans. Readers always want to discover things in stories that they can identify with. It’s all about the resonance, and not so much about the shock value.

Laura Benedict—January 24, 2018


Now it’s your turn to weigh in about creating and connecting emotions with your readers.

  1. Have you drawn directly on your life experience to help create emotion? Any tips on drawing on your life?
  2. How important is forging emotional resonance with your characters to you? As a reader, how important is it to experience?
  3. What fears spark or drive stories for you? Any that weren’t listed above?


You can join my reader group and receive a brand-new Meg Booker prequel novella.

Newly-hired librarian Meg Booker expects the extra two hours the library is open to be a piece of cake. Instead, she finds herself confronted by a mystery involving cookies.

December, 1984. Fir Grove Library, Portland, Oregon: Feathered hair. Cowled sweaters. Instant cameras. Meg has volunteered to work late at the branch during the Christmas festival. Families throng the library, looking to find items for the community treasure hunt. All goes well until odd behavior by a few patrons raises her curiosity. When cookies go missing, Meg realizes she’s stumbled into a mystery and decides she must solve it, even if it means joining the community treasure hunt and racing to the finish.

Farewell, My Cookie is a prequel novella to the Meg Booker Librarian Mysteries—a cozy library mystery series set in the 1980s.

Reader Friday: Best Conditioning Programs for Characters

Labor Day is past. Schools are in session. And with that, high school and collegiate athletic programs are in full swing. Football players gather on their field for conditioning and to practice their plays. Cross country runners pound the sidewalks of our cities and villages. Soccer and Field Hockey athletes work at conditioning and improving their skills.

But, what about our characters in our books? We are warned about two-dimensional “cardboard” characters, and are instructed to fill them out with backstory and motivation. Do we also provide them with a conditioning program to make them buff and tough and ready to take on the nasty plot twists and turns we will throw at them?

What conditioning and skill program do you enroll your characters in, so they can take on Goliath and eke out a victory?


What is the best conditioning program you have seen a writer employ to prepare their character for battle with the protagonist?

Sometimes, I Just Start Writing

By John Gilstrap

Imagine a classroom filled with creative writing students. They have just finished their semester on poetry and studying the text, “Understanding Poetry” by Dr. Evans Pritchard, once made famous by Professor John Keating in “Dead Poets Society.” Now they have moved on to my unit on writing novels.

A student raises his hand. “I want to write a story but I don’t know where to start.”

“Sure you do,” I say. “You pick up a pen or put your fingers on the keyboard and you start writing. It’s really that simple. Ba-da-bing! You’ve started your novel.”

“But what about my outline? My character journals? My story web? Those aren’t done yet.”

“What a relief!” I say. “Think of all the extra time you have to play with your imaginary friends. They’re ready to go. They’ve been waiting for you all this time.”

The student looks confused. Maybe a little panicky. “They’re not ready. I don’t even know who they are yet.”

“You’ve got an idea for a story, right?” I ask.

“Yeah. Well, I have a premise.”

“If you’ve got a premise, then you’ve got a compass point to head toward. Just start walking. Your imaginary friends will find you. They have to. Otherwise there’s no story. You know what they say about necessity and inventions, right?”

“But I don’t know where the story is going to go.”

“How could you?” I ask. “You haven’t started playing with your imaginary friends yet. Once you get in their heads and in their space, things will happen. Trust me on this.”

“Suppose it’s no good?” the student asks.

“Who cares? If you’ve come this far in your writing journey–Lord, I hate that phrase–you’ve got all the basics. Everything else is subjective. Just sit down, try to ignore everything you’ve learned in classes before this one, and try having fun with your characters.”

The student’s face is a mask of confusion. “One of my problems is structural. My critique group tells me I can’t have a prologue.”

“Do you like your prologue?”


“Is it a good prologue? Necessary to the story?”

“They think it’s not.”

“What do you think?”

“I think it’s both good and necessary.”

“Then tell your critique group to kiss your hind quarters. They can do it individually or together with one giant pucker.”

Another hand goes up. It belongs to a young lady with purple hair and a pound of steel hanging out her ears and nose. “Excuse me, Professor Gilstrap,” she says. “You seem to think that anyone can write a story.”


“You mean anyone who’s trained for creative writing, right?”

“Nope. I mean anyone. Just as anyone can sing Irish ballads on St. Patrick’s Day.”

Purple Hair scoffs, “A drunk on a bar stool isn’t exactly Pavarotti.”

“Fair enough,” I say. “Maybe he’s only Frank Sinatra. I’ll bet Little Boy Frankie started off singing because it was fun. I’ll bet he was singing even before he knew what an F sharp or B flat were. I’ll bet he sang because it gave him pleasure. Just like the guy on the barstool.”

“I call bull fritters on that,” Purple declares. “There’s only one Frank Sinatra.”

“There’s only one you,” I say. “And only one me. Only one Michael Bublé, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand or Justin Bieber. In each case, I’ll bet that their fame and fortune began with the simple enjoyment of their art.”

Another hand. Given the curve in his nose, I’m betting its owner plays rugby. “Most of us could sing all day and study our butts off in music class and we’d never be a Pavarotti or a Sinatra.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because they were born with a gift.”

“What gift?” I ask. “I’ve got a larynx and a set of lungs just like they do. If I wanted to, why couldn’t I go to music school, learn breath control and diction and be a gifted singer? I did a lot of musical theater in high school.”

“It’s not that kind of gift,” Rugby Boy says. Crooners like Sinatra made the words of a song come alive. It’s like he lived the songs he wrote.”

“Kind of like he saw the world in a different way?” I ask. “A unique way?”

“Exactly,” Rugby Boy says.

“Suppose I went to Julliard and studied the performances of the masters of music?” I ask. “Couldn’t I do just like them?”

“A paint by numbers Rembrandt will never be a real Rembrandt,” says the student who started this.

“You make a good point,” I say. I’m enjoying the Socratic exercise. “Now, remind me which music schools Sinatra and Streisand went to. Did they even have art schools when young Rembrandt was causing trouble?”

The class stares back at me.

“Here’s the thing,” I say. “While anyone can write, not everyone can capture the hearts of readers. The mechanics of writing can be taught, but the soul of the story must flow from the soul of the writer, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call talent. So it is with all of the arts–acting, singing, painting, sculpting, and, yes, writing. Writers born with talent can be coached to hone it and improve it. But no amount of training and schooling can create talent where none exists.”

“Are you saying that some of us are wasting our time here at school?” Purple Hair asks.

“Only you can answer that question,” I say. “But you’ll never have that answer unless you write, and you’ll never have the stamina to produce the required number of words to make it matter unless you write because you love the process.”

Okay, TKZers, I know there’s red meat here for some of you. Have at it, but please be polite. And as an aside, I am on vacation as you read this, living in Zulu time. Maybe Zulu+1. I’ll be monitoring the responses, but my own responses will be oddly timed, I’m sure.





Does it Matter When You Release a New Book?

Strategic timing of a book’s publication date can give it a boost and have a major impact on its long-term success. Commercial publishers and booksellers have known this forever.

*Full disclosure: I wrote this post for Writers Helping Writers, but I thought you could also benefit from my research.

Are certain days, months, or dates better than others?

Well, it depends on the book.

January – March

The first quarter of the year is the perfect time of year for business, self-improvement, health, and writing craft books, as people are eager to stick to their New Year’s resolutions.

Genre fiction also does well in the first quarter. For many of us, the first quarter means terrible weather (I’m in New England). We’re looking for new books to pass the time while stuck indoors. Also, many readers received new tablets, e-readers, or gift cards for gifts. Shiny, new books become irresistible.

Peak reading and buying season are very much tied to the weather. February and March are generally good times to release a novel because the weather’s not great. Snow and ice forces readers to browse the web for their next adventure.

The exception is children’s books. If you’re a children’s book author, wait for the second quarter of the year. Kids received books during the holidays and parents feel they’ve spent enough already. Also, they’re back in school, which leaves less time for pleasure reading.

April – June

The second quarter is another perfect time to release genre fiction, as people are going on vacation and finally getting to that book they’ve been dying to read all year. It makes sense to release a genre novel in the spring, so momentum can carry over into the summer.

What about children’s books? Easter is the second busiest time of year for kids and gifts. Parents are looking for various things to occupy their kids’ time. Books offer a great way to keep children learning and occupied. Activity books for kids also do well during this time.

July – September

In the third quarter, business books and self-help books become popular again. Releasing virtually any book ahead of the holiday season is a smart idea. August isn’t ideal for two reasons. First, readers are often away, and things are quiet. Vacationers have already purchased their beach reads. Second, media outlets are slower to respond in August, if you’d hoped to advertise or score a review.

October – December

October is a terrific month for horror, thrillers, and mysteries—these genres dominate the marketplace, the darker the better. A cozy mystery or HEA romance may not do well in October. Historical fiction, depending on the subject matter, or dark romance might be all right. Really think about your genre and when you tend to buy books. It will help you understand the best time of year to release your book.

If you wait until the latter half of November, you might be too late unless you’re targeting a niche market.

December is the worst month of the year for new books. Even if you’re releasing a Christmas-related title, you’re better off planning for Christmas in July (and use the hashtag!).

If this logic doesn’t make sense to you, consider this: When do stores change their seasonal displays? They don’t wait till December, do they? Nor should we. Even if you write a series with eager fans, try to hold off till after the new year. Your readers are too busy with the bustling holiday season to read and review a new release.

Niche Markets

Whenever possible, try to find a niche for your new book baby. Consider the themes, locations, and plot of your book. Character flaws, race, worldviews, etc. can also fall into niche markets. Is there an element of your book that you can tie to a holiday or commonly known date? Think: Romance novels releasing near Valentine’s Day.

Dig deeper than the holidays. What if the protagonist is a 9/11 survivor? Or the heroine lost her life partner in the bombing? A September release makes sense, right? If your MC is a new bride, release during peak wedding season and show the connection in your marketing.

I found this calendar on Self-Publishing Review to help spark new ideas for you.

Does the Day of the Week Matter?

Big 5 publishers release on Tuesdays. Since major bestsellers are compiled on Tuesdays, some say a Tuesday release gives the title a full week to gain traction before the weekend. Readers and booksellers look forward to Tuesdays because of the hot-off-the-press releases. Why not take advantage of the buzz?

That’s up to you, of course, but let’s look at why the beginning of the week—Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday—tends to work better than the end.

In addition to the Big 5 releasing on Tuesdays, movies come out on DVD on that day as well. So, it’s a well-accepted day to release new material into the hands of eager readers. That said, many indie authors agree that Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday are all beneficial. While Tuesday may be more traditional, we don’t need to stick to tradition, do we?

The beginning of the week works best because of the way Amazon records weekly sales. If you’re shooting for a bestseller category, you’ll want time to garner sales before the weekend.

The same holds true for monthly sales.

Releases in the first two weeks of the month gain better traction than books released during the last two weeks because of how Amazon records sales (I learned this the hard way). Also, readers are more willing to spend money at the beginning of a month. But again, if you’re releasing series novels and your readers are foaming at the mouth, you may want to publish as soon as they’re ready, regardless of the date.

Do you consider the date of book launches? What month/day/date worked well for your books, and why?

Readers, does timing influence when you buy books?

Check out the amazing “Poe Pen” Steve created for monthly giveaways for my newsletter subscribers!

The wood dates back to 1850 (“1850 Antebellum Cherry”) and the rings are burned into the pen by wrapping copper wire halfway around the pen while the pen is turning, creating friction, and thus heat. They represent crow talons (like my imprint name), as if a crow picked up the pen. Love it! The crow “Poe” he branded into the wood.

Gorgeous, right?

The Two Most Useless Lines of Dialogue in All Literature

by James Scott Bell

The subtitle of my book on dialogue is The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. The converse, of course, is that dialogue can sink a book pretty darn fast, too. Sodden, cliché-ridden talk is like cement shoes on a mafia stoolie. Many a book has been found at the bottom of the East River because the dialogue dragged it down.

Before I get to the two most useless lines in literature, I have a runner-up. This couplet has been used so often it crossed over into the cliché zone around 1986:

“This isn’t about ____. It’s about ___.”

Now, you may have written such an exchange yourself, so I want to make something clear. I bear you no malice or derision. If you feel the absolute need to have a character say such a thing, I shall not throw a flag. I will, however, issue a warning. Clichés flatten the reading experience. Instead of delight, which is what you want to produce, the reader feels cheated. That feeling is usually subconscious, but why even flirt with that?

And by all means do not flirt with, entertain, or otherwise consider the two most useless lines in all literature:

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

I have never read this exchange (or seen it in a movie) except as a shorthand from the author demanding that I care about these people! They love each other, see? You now must love them, too, so that when tragedy befalls them you’ll really, REALLY care, because these are wonderful people who are in love, okay?

Only the effect is the opposite. It comes off as manipulation. It does nothing to make me believe the characters actually do love each other. Words are easy. You need to show me that they do. An action is aces for this, but an original line of dialogue counts as showing me, too.

Now, let’s nuance this a bit. While 98% of the time you don’t need the words “I love you,” there might be a few exceptions. Perhaps a man recovering from a traumatic brain injury, who finally opens his mouth to speak after months of silence, sees his wife at the bedside and utters, “I love you.”

Yeah, might work, though I think you could do better by thinking up some line of dialogue that was meaningful to them both early in the book, as in, “Let’s have chocolate croissants.” I dunno, you’re a writer, make something up. It’s more work than that easy-peasy “I love you,” but work that is worth it to a reader.

This cliché was demolished years ago in a commercial for a certain beer:

Or you can freshen the cliché by putting a spin on it, as Woody Allen does in Annie Hall:

ANNIE: Do you love me?

ALVY: Love is too weak a word for what—I lurve you. You know, I loave you. I luff you, with two F’s. Yes, I have to invent… of course I do. Don’t you think I do?

But for “I love you” followed by “I love you, too,” I cannot think of any exception. Find something else, anything else. The movie Ghost (1980) did it this way:

SAM: I love you, Molly. I’ve always loved you.

MOLLY: Ditto.

That word, Ditto, is not a throwaway, as it becomes a key clue later in the movie.

As I said, readers are cliché resistant. When they see one, it shoots past them without landing, without leaving any mark except a speed bump of dullness. The essence of dullness is predictability. Conversely, when you ditch a cliché for something original, it’s gladdens the reader’s heart.

UPDATE: I just remembered there’s a nuance here also. In my Romeo books, there are a couple of occasions when Mike’s friend and mentor, Ira, says something snarky yet insightful to him, and Mike replies, “I love you, too.” There it has an ironic twist. It’s also outside of the romantic love context which this post is primarily about.

So next time you’re tempted to have a character say “I love you,” and especially “I love you, too,” I want the words of Eliza Doolittle—as portrayed by the great Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady—pounding in your brain:

The Weight

It’s signing season again for me with the release of Hard Country, my first novel in the Tucker Snow series. For an author, this is the time to emerge from the writing cave and look real people in the eye. For some, it’s frightening. For an old classroom teacher and public speaker like me, it’s an opportunity to interact with fans, and I love it.

At my last signing in Northeast Texas, I was approached by a woman somewhere in (I estimate) in her thirties. Her brown hair was cut short, and she had a studious look about her. “Can I talk to you when you’re finished?”

“Sure.” I scribbled my signature on her book and she took a nearby seat to watch as a long line of fans worked their way down the table. A friend who is a retired librarian helped with the books, opening them to the proper page and making sure folks wrote their name on a note so I wouldn’t misspell them.

My events are relaxed, and I spend a lot of time with those who want to talk as I’m signing, so that patient lady sat there for half an hour. Finally it was just her, Librarian, and myself. The room quieted and she pulled her chair closer.

Putting the cap on my pen, I didn’t ask her name, and she didn’t offer it. I leaned back, expecting to hear about her novel under construction. “I bet you’re a writer.”

She looked sheepish and adjusted the dark-rimmed glasses on her nose. “Trying. I’m not published, but I’m in a writing group and I read a lot.” She held up my book. “I’ve been looking forward to your new series. I love world building.”

“How far are you in your manuscript?”

“About thirty thousand words.” She grinned. “Good words, too, all lined up in the right order and everything, but I’ve hit a roadblock.”

“What is it?” I hoped she wouldn’t say she had writers block.

“Well, I’m in a writing group which has helped me a lot. We meet once a month and share what we’ve written. They’ve made some good points and I’ve listened to their suggestions, but I have re-written pages for so long that I’m kind of lost.”

“Write your book.”

She looked startled. “I am.”

“No.” This is where I’ll make some folks upset, but it’s something, I’ve seen over and over. “You’re in a loop, and listening to others instead of plowing ahead with your manuscript. I get that writers groups are beneficial. It’s a great support system. It’s great to talk with others who understand, too, and to get feedback for a while. Keep going every month and maintain that interest that keeps the fires burning, but get your book written and don’t stop until you type, The End.”

“But they’ve had good ideas.”

“I’m sure they have. How many are published?”

“None. They’re good writers.”

“I’m sure they are. Write your book.”

Librarian gave me the eye and I backed off.

The lady leaned forward. “There’s another thing. It’s the big block I was talking about and I’m really worried.”

“What’s that? Writer’s block?”

“No,” She looked uncomfortable. “It’s come up…”

“In your writers group.”

“Yes.” She tilted her head and looked at me like a puppy trying to make sense of the English language. “See, my book is set in the southern Oklahoma territories over a hundred years ago and my protagonist is someone related to me that I heard about when I was little. She was Choctaw. I have other characters that are like me.”

I knew where she was going, but made her say it. “And that is?”

“My group says I’ll get in trouble for cultural appropriation, but it’s historical fiction based on what my grandmother told me, and the research I’ve done.”

“Was she Indian?”


“Is it about your grandmother and what she told your? Someone you knew?”


“Write your book.”

“But I might get in trouble, writing characters who don’t look like me.”

“You won’t until you write your book.”


“I assume you have a large cast of characters, so write about them all. This is a diverse world, and use that to be accurate. Tell a story that’s faithful to the time and write the truth. Use all the honesty you can and don’t worry about what others might say. Concern yourself with what you’re saying in this world you’re building.”

She looked so relieved I thought she was going to cry. “So it’s okay to have characters that aren’t like me.”

“In my opinion, yes. Do your research. You’re using different historical characters who were there, and you’re including them to heighten the richness of the story, so just write your book.”

“You keep saying that. So don’t be afraid.”

“Write the truth.”

“I think I can get back to work now.”

“Go put words on paper and don’t worry about what others might say. We’re artists and our fiction comes from all those around us. Concentrate on what you’re saying and you’ll be just fine. Carry the weight of writing, not the burden of what a very few others might say against your dream.”

She used both hands to shake mine. “Thank you.”

I wasn’t through. “If you have something to say, say it.”

She nodded, and left.

The Librarian gave me a funny look when the lady was gone. “You were kinda harsh there, bud.”

“The truth is sometimes harsh, but she’ll never get it written until she gets back to work.”

That goes for everyone else, too.