Grand Opening!

by Debbie Burke


In 1988, when we moved to Flathead County, Montana, the population was 57K. There were more than 10 bookstores within a 25-mile radius of Kalispell. Except for Waldenbooks in the mall, all were independently owned. They happily coexisted, each with its own quirky personality, specialties, and customer base.

Fast forward a few years when a behemoth named Borders came to Kalispell. Readers loved the huge selection, the cafe, and ample parking lot, unlike downtown where parking has been a problem since horse and buggy days. My critique group met at Borders in cozy nooks with comfy chairs.

But, there was a downside: one by one, the neat, quirky, little indie bookstores went out of business.

Fast forward a few more years and an even bigger behemoth named Amazon took over domination of the book market.

What goes around, comes around.

Where Borders had once put mom-and-pop bookstores out of business, now Amazon gobbled up Borders. In 2011, 400 Borders stores closed, including the one in Kalispell.

Meanwhile the county’s population swelled. As of 2023, it’s 114K folks. For years, a handful of used bookstores and one small indie that had survived were the only brick-and-mortar options. Browsing thumbnails onscreen just isn’t the same as wandering the aisles and spotting something that strikes your fancy. Readers were living in a literary desert.

Then, on January 31, 2024, a new Barnes & Noble opened in Kalispell.

A week before opening, B&N CEO James Daunt said in a press release:

“The positive feedback we have received since announcing this new Barnes & Noble has been astounding. It has been a long time since Borders had their bookstore just across the parking lot and it is a particular pleasure to bring a major new bookstore back to U.S. 93.”

If Mr. Daunt had any doubts about this new location, opening day quickly erased them.

It was a mob scene. Vehicles circled the jammed parking lot like vultures waiting for someone to pull out. Hundreds of long-famished book lovers roamed through the store. I don’t remember this much excitement about a retail store opening since 1993 when Costco arrived.

One of the most frequent comments as customers walked through B&N’s doors: “It’s wonderful to smell new books.”

The arrangement is an attractive, intriguing labyrinth. Walls of books divide the space into discrete sections: fiction, new releases, mystery-thriller, sweet or spicy romance, westerns, nonfiction, history, religion, self-help, children’s and YA, Manga, graphic novels, and more.

On one table, a sign announces “Banned Books.” Many titles had been required reading when I was in school.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl;

Of Mice and Men;

The Great Gatsby;

For Whom the Bell Tolls;

To Kill a Mockingbird;

Catcher in the Rye;

Fahrenheit 451;

  1. 1984.

Also there are more recent titles like:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings;

The Hunger Games;

The Handmaid’s Tale;

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest;

The Color Purple.

One large wall displays books about Montana, from hiking guides to history to Glacier National Park to bison, wolves, and grizzlies to mining and logging to pioneer memoirs.

Each new cubby in the maze features more products: games, gifts, cards, beautiful bound journals, vinyl records, turntables, magazines.


Especially encouraging are expansive sections devoted to young readers, covering the range from picture books to YA novels.

A reader’s oasis appeared in what was once a literary wasteland. On opening day, people waited in line for up to 45 minutes to pay for their armloads of purchases.


There’s an old saying that you can’t throw a typewriter in Montana without hitting a writer. Dozens live in my immediate area, hundreds within a tankful of gas. And no one is more excited about the new B&N than we authors are.

Local authors Dr. Betty Kuffel, Barbara Schiffman, Debbie Burke, Jess Owen Kara

The manager, Daniel, put out the welcome mat for us, hosting book signings not only for traditionally published authors but also indie-pubbed authors on consignment.

My slot was at noon on the Sunday after opening day. A few days before, I brought in two boxes of books. By that weekend, crowds were still large, but not quite as overwhelming.

The signing table was set up just inside the front entrance. Daniel had stacks of my books ready, along with stickers that read “Signed Edition.” I waved at him across the store, but he barely had time to nod because he was so busy ringing up sales with two other cashiers.

Families streamed through the door with toddlers to college-age kids, adult mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, grandparents and grandchildren. The interest among young readers was heartening.

I must have talked with more than 100 people. All were excited about books and reading.

Some chats were brief: “I’ve missed Borders. Glad this new store is here.”

Others lasted much longer: “You wrote all these books? Wow. What are they about?”

“Which book should I start with in your series?”

“My fifth-grade students are learning to write stories. Would you come and talk to them?”

“I want to be a writer. Can you give me advice?”

“I like to support local authors.”

And they did support this local author. I sold 17 books on consignment.

I also learned insights into B&N’s book ordering process. They can’t order or stock books that don’t show up in their computer system. As mentioned in this post, they don’t order from Amazon KDP Print-on-Demand (POD).

However, there’s a workaround for Create Space POD books:

Amazon/CreateSpace authors have the ability to choose the extended distribution option for their titles.  By choosing this option, their books automatically become available through Lightning Source.

Lightning Source is Ingram Book Company’s print-on-demand division, and they make CreateSpace titles (as well as other POD titles) available to Barnes & Noble and other retailers.

Barnes & Noble will only sell CreateSpace titles through and customer orders, not through in-store stocking and replenishment.


That’s how Daniel was able to order and stock Instrument of the Devil and Crowded Hearts – A Novella, but not the rest of my titles. Those sales he handled through consignment.

Another alternative is to upload directly to However, there’s a catch: for a store to order them, books need to be returnable. But, according to a knowledgeable author with many self-pubbed books, POD books are not returnable. Huh?

Confused? Me, too.

My conclusion is that the best option for me as a self-pubbed author is to upload to Draft2Digital and Ingram Spark (I’m in that process now). That makes ordering clear and direct.

Because CEO Daunt gives individual local managers autonomy and latitude for ordering, I’m hopeful Daniel will keep my books in stock once they’re available on D2D and Ingram Spark.

What happens to our little locally-owned shops now?

I’m not about to turn my back on the Book Shelf and Bad Rock Books (with three friendly resident cats!). They’ve supported me for years. When I spoke with Stephanie, the Book Shelf owner, she was excited about B&N’s opening: “There are never enough bookstores!”

Existing stores cater to different niches than B&N. At this point, the area’s population is large enough to sustain all of them.

When many retailers are closing stores because of the shift to online, readers prove they still love to sniff the aroma of new books and wander aisles in search of serendipitous finds. How’s this for an intriguing title? It begged me to pick it up.

Barnes & Noble, welcome to the neighborhood! 


TKZers: Which physical bookstores do you visit? What’s your favorite way to buy books–online, in a bricks-and-mortar store, or both?



Surprise in Fiction: Trent’s Last Case

Surprise – noun — a completely unexpected occurrence, appearance, or statement.

* * *

Unsurprisingly, there’s been some research done on the science of surprise. I read this summary on Melissa Hughes’s blog.

There is science in surprise. Neuroscientists have discovered that surprise is one of the most powerful human emotions. As it turns out, the brain’s pleasure center (or the nucleus accumbens) lights up like a Christmas tree when you experience something that you didn’t expect. Not only do you get a nice boost of dopamine, the brain releases noradrenaline – the neurotransmitter responsible for focus and concentration. Think of it as the reset button for the brain. It actually stops all of the other brain activity to let you find meaning in the surprise.

An article on highlights the work of neuroscientists Dr. Gregory Berns and Dr. Read Montague who ran experiments that used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure changes in human brain activity in response to a sequence of pleasurable stimuli, in this case, fruit juice and water.

“Until recently, scientists assumed that the neural reward pathways, which act as high-speed Internet connections to the pleasure centers of the brain, responded to what people like,” said Montague.

“However, when we tested this idea in brain scanning experiments, we found the reward pathways responded much more strongly to the unexpectedness of stimuli instead of their pleasurable effects.”


Given this data, maybe we authors should look closely at the element of surprise in our works. If we can cause the reader’s brain to suddenly experience a pleasurable shot of dopamine, we will have captured their attention and their loyalty.

* * *

“Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise.” — Julia Cameron

* * *

When we read a mystery novel, we expect to be surprised. All those twists and turns are designed to keep our attention. When the shy, gentle woman suddenly pulls a gun out of her purse, or the disconnected nerd leaps into the line of fire to save a stranger, we love it.

According to an essay on,

The importance of surprising your readers should never be forgotten by any aspiring writer. In fact, it should always be considered a vital part of a storyteller’s toolkit. By seeking to confound your audience with plot twists, subverting the reader’s expectations with ‘the element of surprise’ can often allow you to heighten dramatic tension in your story, add suspense, or introduce humour.

Mystery readers, though, are a fairly sophisticated bunch. Most dedicated mystery readers have a sense of the story. We’re accustomed to surprises in the form of strange clues and red herrings to distract us from figuring out who the real culprit is. Complex twists and turns are part of a good mystery, but readers know that no matter what surprises or unusual events are thrown at the amateur sleuth, she will eventually solve the mystery and save the day.

However, I read a book recently that took a couple of turns I didn’t expect. (Note: spoilers in the paragraphs below.)

* * *

Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley was published in 1913 and is widely respected as one of the first, if not the first, modern detective novel. Agatha Christie called it, “One of the best detective stories ever written.” It was dedicated to Bentley’s friend G.K. Chesterton who encouraged him to write it and, maybe unsurprisingly, called it, “The finest detective story of modern times.”

The story begins when the body of a very unlikeable financial magnate, Sigsbee Manderson, is found by one of his servants, and there is concern that his death might shake up the financial markets  When the editor of an influential newspaper hears of the probable murder, he calls on the charismatic Philip Trent, an artist who is also a freelance reporter and amateur sleuth, to help solve the case. Highly respected by the police authorities, Trent seems to have the intellectual acuity of Sherlock Holmes since we’re told nothing can escape his astute powers of observation. (It turns out this is an intended comparison.)

There are the usual suspects in the case: the beautiful widow, the unhappy uncle, and various others who had reasons to do away with the unpleasant Mr. Manderson. And there is an abundance of strange clues to keep the reader busy trying to put the puzzle together. Not to worry, though. Trent puts his considerable analytical skills to work and comes up with a brilliant theory that satisfies all the clues. The only problem is that he has fallen in love with Manderson’s widow, and he believes she was having an affair with one of her husband’s employees who subsequently murdered Manderson.

Trent writes his dispatch to the newspaper editor but doesn’t send it. Unwilling to implicate the woman he loves, he gives the dispatch to the widow, leaves the site of the crime, and accepts a freelance reporting assignment in another country..

Surprise #1: Trent’s solution to the mystery comes just a little after the midpoint in the book. That threw me since I’m accustomed to the reveal coming in the last chapter. I read on, curious to see how the author would continue the story. Will the widow turn out to be a scheming murderer who hunts down Trent and kills him? Will she and her lover taunt Trent with his unwillingness to accuse them?

Several chapters later, we discover:

Surprise #2: The widow wasn’t involved. Trent was wrong.

Very clever, Mr. Bentley. You led me down the garden path, convinced that Trent could not make a mistake because he was modeled on the extraordinary Sherlock Holmes.

It turns out E.C. Bentley was not a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and he intended Trent’s Last Case to show the amateur sleuth as a fallible human, not a flawless reasoning superhero. But I didn’t know that when I began reading the book, and my expectations set me up for a few surprising plot twists.

There are a couple of other surprises in the book, but I won’t reveal them here in case anyone wants to read the story. Even though Bentley employs an early 20th-century style of writing that is no longer popular, the story is enjoyable and stands the test of time.

* * *

“I love surprises! That’s what is great about reading. When you open a book, you never know what you’ll find.” –Jerry Spinelli

* * *

An interesting postscript: I uploaded this post to the TKZ site last week. Over the weekend, my husband and I had lunch with a fellow author who was telling us about a book he recently read: Fade Away by Harlan Coben. Although I hadn’t said anything about my TKZ post, our well-read friend said the thing he loved about the book was that it held many surprises. So there you have it. The proof is in the pudding.

So TKZers: Have you read Trent’s Last Case? What books have you read that took you by surprise? How do you include elements of surprise in your books?

* * *

Private pilot Cassie Deakin is in for a string of surprises when she lands in the middle of a murder mystery. Even Fiddlesticks the cat takes on a new persona that’s shocking.

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


Your Unique Writer Proposition

by James Scott Bell

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” That old chestnut is usually attributed to Emerson, who actually put it this way:

“If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house.”

We would all like to believe that readers will beat a path to Amazon—or a local bookstore—to read “better books.” It’s true that doesn’t always happen; or, at least, as often as it should. But the odds are better with “better.” We can always improve our writing, which is one of the things I love about the craft. And that’s what we talk about most here at TKZ. Today I want to talk about what you as a human author (as opposed to AI!) bring to the table. It springs from the concept of what businesses call a Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

The USP is that factor or consideration presented by a seller as the reason their product or service is different from and better than that of the competition.

With so many products out there in every category, consumers are looking for the best bang for their buck, and the best (e.g., most efficient, most convenient, most entertaining, etc.) product available.

Someone bringing a new product to market has to find a way to make it stand out from other products in its category.

But if I try to sell a mousetrap that’s just like all the others, how can I expect to win over new customers?

Or readers, who have an overwhelming amount of content to choose from. You as an author need to give them a reason to choose you.

Every author needs a Unique Writer Proposition––UWP.

Think of it this way. Say you’re a reader who loves detective novels and your favorite writer is Michael Connelly. You don’t really analyze why you dig Connelly, you just know that at the end of one of his books you’ve had an experience you want to repeat.

Now here comes Benny Wannabe, a new author, who is putting up his own detective novels for sale. When you read one, nothing about it really stands out. You finish it, and it’s okay, but you are not left with the feeling you have when you read Connelly.

How likely are you to go seeking out Wannabe’s other books?

Thus, I propose that you become more purposeful about developing a UWP.

  1. Look Within

When I started out in traditional publishing, the buzzword brand was just coming into fashion. Every author was supposed to have one, because that’s how publishers sold them to bookstores, and bookstores to readers.

My brand at the beginning was as a lawyer writing legal thrillers. There were only about nine million other authors with the same profile. At a brainstorming session with some other writers, where we came up with taglines for our brand, I took the title of F. Lee Bailey’s autobiography, The Defense Never Rests, and changed it to, The Suspense Never Rests. That would be my goal: total, page-turning suspense.

Next, I asked what I burned with. What is that fuels my inner fire? The answer came: injustice. I hate it, I loathe those who traffic in it, and ache for the victims of it. So the quest for justice was an obvious add-on to my UWP.

Try this: Ask yourself what type of fiction you most like to read. What is it about those books that attracts you? Is it fast-moving plots? Colorful characters? Lean prose, or beautiful style? Then ask what gets your blood pumping. How will you integrate that into your fiction?

  1. Added Value

Now look at your work and ask yourself three questions:

  1. What do I do well?
  2. What can I do better?
  3. What are my unique “add ons”?

I did this twenty years ago. I decided what I did pretty well was plot and dialogue. What I needed to do better was character and scenes. So I instituted a self-study program in both areas.

What were some of the things I brought to my fiction that were particular to me? I found:

  • A bit of humor mixed in with the suspense (a la my favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock).
  • Entertaining minor characters.

Ask this: What do you bring to your writing that is a distinctive? What is your “personality on the page”?

  1. Deliver the Goods

Once you have determined your own UWP (and it’s good to write it down in 100 words or less, and tweak it from time to time), you have a model to shoot for. You write your book and revise the draft, keeping these things in mind.

Look at the seven critical success factors of fiction—plot, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue, voice, and meaning (or theme). Make it your goal to improve in each of these areas in a year’s time. It’s not a daunting task to spend a few weeks of self study in each area.

Picture this: As you write, keep a picture in your mind of a tired mother or father, a busy professional, an overextended student. They have a small window of time for reading pleasure and they’ve picked up your book.

Be unique. For them.

What is something about your writing that is unique or personal to you?

[This post is adapted from The Mental Game of Writing.]

The Black Sheep of the Short Form—the Novelette

The two previous Words of Wisdom dealt with story lengths shorter than the novel: the short story and the novella. Today’s post, though not a Words of Wisdom one, will continue with a look at the “black sheep” of the short form, the novelette. While the novelette is recognized in various science fiction awards as a discrete length, this is not true for mystery and thriller, hence the “black sheep” in this post’s title.

Length-wise, short stories are usually defined as running from 2000-7500 words, while the novella is often defined as running from 20,000-40,000 words in length. Short stories are the typical length in many online magazines, and in story anthologies. Story anthologies can include longer lengths, of course, ranging into the novella length. But, in general, there’s a divide between the two forms.

The novelette lives in that divide, running between 7500 words and 20,000.

Masterclass discusses what distinguishes a novelette from a novella:

In terms of storytelling ambition, novelettes tend to split the difference between novellas and shorter forms like short stories. Novelettes tend to have a greater focus on character development, worldbuilding, and plotting than short stories. However, the stories are generally more concise and focused than a novella-length work, as the word count is often too restrictive to tell a long story. [The full post can be found here.]

Our very own James Scott Bell has written a number of novelettes, including the Force of Habit series and Trouble is My Business, each six novelettes long. In his March 3, 2013 KZB post, Jim touches on the novelette and its value in helping you train as a writer:

Training: A novelette is short form (about 15k words) and I’ve been studying that form as the e-book revolution has taken off. All writers now should be producing short form work in addition to full length novels. He goes on to discuss other aspects of his novelette—the post is well worth reading in it’s entirety.

In the Science Fiction field a novelette is defined as running from 7500 to 17,500 words.

The late science fiction grand master James Gunn felt that the novelette was the perfect length for science fiction: long enough to allow the writer to fully explore an idea but not so long as to become caught up in a plot that might be so complex and lengthy as to overshadow the exploration of that idea:

“Although there are some great SF novels, there are far more great SF novelettes, which embody the substance of a novel without taking on its burden to solve the problem it lays out.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Jim Gunn about this when I was at the University of Kansas for a two-week novel writing workshop in 2013. As a long time anthologist, editor and writer he was passionate that this was the case.

I feel the same might be true for mystery, especially the locked room variety. The novelette length is long enough to delve into a clever mystery and explore it without having to go to even the extent of plotting and number of characters a novella does. At the same time, there’s more room for characterization and world building then in a true short story.

In mystery or thriller, neither the novelette or the novella are mentioned in awards categories. The Edgar Awards short story category covers stories that run from 1,000 to 22,000 words. The International Thriller Writer Awards simply says that to be considered a short story it must be less than 35,000 words.


Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense film, The Birds, is based on Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 novelette of the same name. In the novelette, the story is centered on Nat Hocken, a disabled WW2 veteran who works for a local farmer. Set on the windswept Cornish coast during a bleak autumn, Nat soon finds evidence of birds acting strangely, pecking at his bedroom window, and when he opens it, attacking him. At the same time, the autumn has turned a bitter, dry cold. Soon Nat notices gargantuan flocks of gulls riding the waves at sea, seemingly biding their time. What follows is a building horror as Nat realizes his family, and his community is under threat, and he takes steps to warn others and protect his family.

The POV is kept on Nat, and the focus on coordinated actions of the birds. The novelette takes place over three days. Radio broadcasts let Nat and the reader both know that the bird attacks are widespread, throughout the U.K., and perhaps the world, but we stay with Nat the whole time. The arc of the novelette is in Nat and his family’s evolving situation, as he becomes aware of the threat, and attempts to save his family and warn others.

I’ve published three novelettes, “Siloed,” which appeared in the Street Spells urban fantasy anthology, “Running Tangent,” co-written with K.C. Ball, which was published in the July 2015 issue of Perihelion Science Fiction, and the cozy mystery novelette, “Farewell, My Cookie,” which I published on BookFunnel last August. All three were in the range of 10-11,000 words. Both “Siloed” and “Farewell, My Cookie,” take place over the course of a single evening, while “Running Tangent” occurs over a longer span of time.  I find novelette length ideal for briskly paced stories that took place over just a few hours.

For me, the novelette’s allowing more space for characterization, exploring an idea or a world and more room for plot than a short story while being more concise than a novella makes it a form worth considering.

How about you?

  1. Have you read novelettes? If so, do you have any favorites?
  2. Have you written novelettes?
  3. Do you think the novelette length worth writing for mystery, especially locked room or puzzle stories?

Creating a Main Character Persona

Cary Grant

Last weekend I watched a Dyan Cannon interview in which she discussed the new movie, “Archie” (Cary Grant), and her marriage with him. When asked about the Cary Grant film persona, Cannon said that Archie Leach had picked attributes from multiple actors he admired and created the Cary Grant persona, which he perfected to became so famous and successful.

Here’s an article on the subject which confirmed Cannon’s assessment:

I had planned to start a discussion in March on “creating main characters” for a Friday TKZ post. I thought this would be the perfect time.

There are many excellent books available for new writers on the subject of creating characters. A quick look at my shelves reminded me of three of my favorites: JSB’s Writing Unforgettable Characters, Nancy Kress’s Dynamic Characters, and Nancy Kress’s Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint.

Today, to help beginning writers and readers, let’s focus on (a) the character attributes we have used in our own characters, or the character traits that are most likely to draw us to characters in someone else’s writing. And, (b) the books we found most helpful in the beginning of our writing careers to create such characters.


  1. What character attributes have you used in building main characters?
  2. What main character attributes are most likely to keep you reading?
  3. Which books did you find helpful in the beginning of your writing journey?

The Choreography Of Violence

By John Gilstrap

On Monday, Sue Coletta wrote a wonderful piece on how to write a dance scene. As I read it, I realized that a) I’ve never written a dance scene, and b) what a daunting challenge it would be to try. The page is an inanimate thing. There’s no music to hear, no rhythm to feel. All of that–and the romance that it triggers–must be borne solely by word on the page. The more I think about it, the less likely it becomes that I will ever write a dance scene.

I do, however, write my fair share of violence, and it shares at least one requirement with dance scenes: choreography. Whether it’s mano a mano fisticuffs or a major armed conflict with firearms and explosives, it’s our job as writers to bring readers into the middle of the action in a way that makes them feel involved.

It all boils down to point of view.

If you’ve ever endured the adrenaline dump that is our fight-or-flight instinct, you know that in the moments when your survival is threatened, the world becomes very small. If someone threatens to hurt you or to hurt a family member, there’s a special kind of clarity of purpose. The why of the situation that brought you to that moment could not be less relevant. Survival is all that matters. Sometimes, that means running away, and other times it means defeating the threat.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Experts in managing violent encounters–specifically active shooter situations–tout the strategy of Run-Hide-Fight, in that order. Run away if you can, otherwise hide. Only as a last resort should one attempt to fight back. As a non-expert in such things, however, history all too often has shown that to hide really means to await one’s turn to be be a victim. Something to think about.

When it comes to the fight scene in your story, ask yourself whose is the best point of view from which to present the action, and then stick with it. My 2019 Jonathan Grave thriller, Total Mayhem, opens with a mass shooting at a high school football game:

            Tom Darone had seen a lot of people die in his day, but not like this. The lady in the blue coat—the first to go down—made a barking sound and then folded in on herself.  Tom’s first thought was that she’d suffered a seizure, or maybe a stroke.  She sat two spaces down from him in the bleachers, and one row closer to the football field.  Her emergency happened at the same second when Number 19 of the Custer Cavalrymen intercepted a pass at the end zone, robbing the Hooker Hornets of a go-ahead touchdown.

In all the excitement, nobody saw her collapse.  Then her husband noticed.  “Anita?” he said as he stooped to help her.

Then the crowd erupted with a new kind of cheer.

People pointed, and Tom followed their fingers to see that a player had collapsed on the field.  Was that blood?

Then two more players fell.  A chunk of helmet erupted in a gruesome spray from a third.

The lights went out. In an instant, the field went from the artificial daylight bright that is unique to nighttime football to true darkness.

Anita’s husband shouted, “Oh, my God, she’s been shot!  Help me!”

A ripple of four spectators to Tom’s right fell side-by-side among yelps of pain.

The field was under attack.

Tom watched with a strange sense of detachment as the panic hit.  Home now only two months from his eighth deployment to the Sand Box, and six weeks into his new status as an unemployed vet, the reality of the moment crystalized in an instant. The first survival challenge would be to avoid being trampled in the stampede of humanity.

The panic around him didn’t blossom or bloom.  It erupted.  Those who’d been hit—and the people who loved them—hunkered down, while everyone else fled. In a single instant, hundreds of people decided that personal survival trumped everything. A few were so overwhelmed by the enormity of the swirling action that they simply shut down, but those were the minority.  Most people ran. They had no obvious destination, and they had no apparent plan. Most didn’t even know where the exits were, so they followed the people ahead of them on the assumption that strangers were smarter than they were.

The mayhem grew to critical proportions in mere seconds. Tom realized in a rush that he was in the epicenter of the kill zone.  As the sea of spectators pushed and tumbled past each other—and as bullets continued to find their marks—Tom dropped to his stomach into the foot-trough of the bleachers and rolled to his right.  As he dropped into the matrix of the metal support structure, his boot found a foothold, and then so did his hands.

If I had chosen to write that scene from the point of view of Anita’s husband–the spouse of the first victim–all of the action would have been secondary to his efforts to save Anita’s life and shelter her from further harm. If I’d written it from a football player’s point of view as his teammates are dying, the scene would be different still.

If I’d told this part of the story from the shooter’s point of view, it would have given away too much of the story, so that choice was never in play.

The point here is that while each POV character would observe the same swarm of panicked humanity, the reader’s journey through the scene would be entirely different depending on the author’s writerly choice. Even the narrative voice would be different. Because Tom Darone had recently been in battle, his voice is naturally more observant and less emotional than would be, say, a teenage football player.

Action scenes fail when the author tries to take too big a bite.

The choreography of violence is inherently confusing, so it’s easy to lose the reader. Take the cliched barroom melee from every cowboy movie of the 1960s. On film, a viewer can easily keep track of the different punches thrown by John Wayne and Dean Martin because our brains process imagery at the speed of light. On the page, though, there’s that extra filter in play that translates spots on the paper into words and then those words into images that can be far more vivid than any movie adaptation, but that translation is as fragile as a single misplaced word. Throw in a bunch of different POV characters and the risk of losing your readers grows astronomically.

If you pick a single character from whose point of view to show the scene, you can give the reader a literal blow by blow description of that character’s corner of the fight, while observing flashes of the rest of the activity through peripheral observation. We feel his knuckles hurt when he throws a punch, and we feel the pain in his gut when he takes a body blow.

Critiquing: When You’re
At A Loss For Kind Words.

By PJ Parrish

I might have to kill the bird.

Emily Dickinson’s poem is heavily with me this week. You know the line: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”

I might have to tell a writer to give up on her story and start over. And believe me, I know how that stings.

Over the decades, I’ve critiqued hundreds of manuscripts. I’ve read countless manuscripts and short stories for contests, including for Mystery Writers of America anthologies and the inaugural year of the ITW Thriller Awards. Shoot, back in my newspaper days, I was a preliminary screening judge for the Pulitizers.

I’ve also done maybe a hundred charity critiques for writing conferences. Since joining The Kill Zone, I’ve done quite a few First Pagers. And I’ve had, oh, maybe 30 or so friends or acquaintances ask me to read their stuff. Some of them are still talking to me.

Let me interject here. I am not saying this to set-up a woe-is-me whine-fest. I’ve done this willingly, happily, and in most cases, with true affection for the brave souls who put themselves out there. But here’s the thing:

You can tell quickly if a submission is good. I’ve heard countless editors and agents say this, and it’s true. Screenwriter Josh Olsen wrote about this in The Village Voice in his essay “I Will Not Read Your F*%!ing Script.” (Click here for link. Warning: his language is salty.) Money graph:

It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.

(By the way, here’s a simple way to find out if you’re a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you’re not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)

I work hard on the critiques I do, whether it’s a full manuscript or 450 words for First Pagers here. I try hard to be truthful but constructive. I start with the notion that even in the rawest submission, there is something good to say.

Until there is not.

Every once in a blue moon, I get a manuscript that is truly hopeless. Such is my dilemma this week. I am critiquing a partial for a regional writer’s conference. And for the first time, I don’t know what the heck to tell this writer without coming off like a….fill in the negative noun of your choice.  I’ll go with arse because it’s the cleanest one I can think of.

So I will tell you guys. Because maybe it will help someone out there who might recognize, from this example, a misstep off their plot path or a failure of character construction. (Note: I have heavily disguised the details of this submission).

It runs five chapters and about 50K words. Quick synopsis.

Chapter 1: Opens fast with an already-has-happened abduction of two teenage girls. Opening line to the effect of: Greta could see nothing. They are blindfolded and bound, in the trunk of a car. Scene is all from one girl’s POV. Greta is thinking about where they are going and why. She hears one man say one line, “We know what your mother did.” Nothing else. Car stops, trunk opens. Greta senses bright sunlight creeping around the edges of her mask. End of chapter.

Chapter 2: Greta is sitting on a bench on a Miami Beach boardwalk, watching the sun go down. Lots of description of this. Her friend Ellen joins her. They talk about school and Ellen’s crush on a boy. They decide to go get something to eat then go to Club Salsa, sneak in with their fake IDs and meet some guys. They get in Greta’s VW and drive away from the beach. End of chapter.

Chapter 3: Opens at Mexican restaurant with long description of atmosphere. More dialogue about what they will do after school. Greta is upset that her mother expects her to become a lawyer like her. Ellen says she wants to go out of state to get away from family. They pay and leave. End of chapter.

Chapter 4. Opens with long description of Miami and Little Havana as Greta drives to the club. They sit in parking lot and a car with two guys pulls up. Description of loud music coming from the car. One of the boys tries to pick up Ellen as Greta hangs back. The two couples go into the club. End of Chapter.

Chapter 5: Opens with abductors ordering Greta and Ellen to climb out of the trunk and take off their blindfolds. Greta looks around at what appears to be desolate scrubland (The Everglades? She isn’t sure) and sees a small nondescript building. END OF SAMPLE

Okay, let me have it. Because I know you guys know exactly what is wrong here. Let’s hit the major points first, then I will get into more detailed issues.

First, the time line is screwed up. Like whiplash, screwed up. Chapter 1 is present-time action. But chapters 2-4 are all flashback, setting up “the normal world” of Greta and Ellen before the disruption (kidnapping). Second, in chapters 2-4, NOTHING IS GOING ON, PLOT-WISE.

I know what happened here. The writer fell into the trap that we (especially James) talk about often here. Writers want to create sympathy for their protagonists, so they feel compelled to world-build the characters’ nice lives before they get wrecked on the rocks. But this writer, in her heart of hearts, sensed the boredom of chapters 2-3, so decided to tack on a frontispiece frenetic action scene. Then she realized the plot corner she had painted herself into and three chapters later, jumped back to the present-time abduction scene.

I don’t know if she intends to keep moving back and forth between present and past. Gawd, I hope not. It’s exhausting for writer and readers.

The other issues:

Point of view: Except for a lapse into Ellen’s POV at the club for a few lines (yes, head-hopping in mid-scene), we are in Greta’s POV. Problem is, Greta not a very interesting narrator. The writer misses using what I call sensory logic when Greta is blindfolded. (For example, she says the car has moved onto I-95 but cannot see this).  Illogically, we get almost no feelings or thoughts from Greta about what danger they are in.

Dialogue: It is all trivial, banal girl chit-chat about college, boys, parents. Dialogue must do one of two things: Say something unique or say something uniquely. It should advance the plot and/or enhance character.

Description: The writer is in love with the sound of her own voice. Every chance she gets, she tells us what things looks like (hello, there are five senses!). Overwrought writerly imagery that does not sound true to a teenager’s sensibility.

Choreography: Moving characters through time and space is easy. Keep it simple and clear. This writer spends way to much time driving around (the abductors and the girls). The chapter should begin in situ: “The club was hot and crowded by the time they got in past the bouncer.” Not, they drove across the MacArhtur Causeway, passing through Overtown and finally reached Eighth Street, where they parked in a lot next to Club Salsa).

So I am sure you guys see the problems. My question is, what do I do with this? I usually try to suggest to struggling writers some possible solutions, some ways to get back on the true path. I don’t know, from a “mere” 50 pages what the nut story is. I’m guessing it involves something dark about Greta’s mom’s past that has caused the abductors to target Greta and Ellen. Geez, I sure hope so because we need some meat.

I truly don’t what to tell this person.

Actually, I do know. She has to throw this out and start over.

I’ve written often here that WHERE you choose to open your story is one of the most important decisions you make. You are parachuting your reader into a strange world and if you don’t pick the right moment, they will crash into the trees, the chute won’t open, or they will drift off into the ether. Most of the time, writers get into a scene too early. We get cops who are awakened by phone calls and told to come to the crime scene instead of opening with the cop at the scene. We get characters who think, ponder, muse and wonder before they finally act — Denise had long thought about killing Mark, but he had been a pretty decent husband for 20 years now. She remembered the day he proposed…

This writer, I think, got into her chapter 1 too late. By opening with the girls already blindfolded and “senseless” we have been deprived of an even juicer action scene of the actual abduction. So maybe open with them at Club Salsa and Greta notices a shady older guy following them. The creepy man disappears but Greta is shaken and tells Ellen they have to leave. Then, maybe in the lot, maybe in a dicey neighborhood, they are abducted.

What then? Well, we know, right? You stay in the present and keep your plot momentum moving forward. So how do you then rebuild the “normal” lost world? By switching perhaps to Greta’s mom’s POV after she realizes Greta is gone. By brief slashes of backstory via Greta’s memory. By bringing in other characters who can fill in the gaps. Action, then explanation.

Sigh, again. Back to my dilemma. I read and re-read this submission, trying hard to find something positive to say. I ended up in the same place Josh Olsen did. From his essay:

So. I read the thing. And it hurt, man. It really hurt. I was dying to find something positive to say, and there was nothing. And the truth is, saying something positive about this thing would be the nastiest, meanest and most dishonest thing I could do. Because here’s the thing: not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you’re not a writer.

Hope is, truly, the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. And, as Dickinson goes on to say, “Sore must be the storm that could abash the little bird.” I am at a loss for kind words.

Bird killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?

p.s. I apologize for any typos today. Had cataract surgery Friday. Am fine but one-eyed until they get around to the other one. Argh.


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?

We’ll All Be Grunting Soon Enough

by James Scott Bell

Unfortunate autocorrect at a Canadian pizza joint. (Click to enlarge)

It’s no secret that grammar is as endangered as the Chinese box turtle. It used to be thought, and taught, that knowing how to put sentences together into a coherent form was the foundation of education, communication, indeed civilization itself. Without it, we can’t pass on ideas or cooperate in an enterprise (as the builders of the Tower of Babel found out. “Hey Gomer, hand me a trowel!” “Eh???” “A trowel, curse you, a trowel!” “Unh???”)

Now, I’m not a “get off my lawn” kind of fellow (unless, of course, you are on my lawn), but I have to ask what in the hey-diddle we’re doing to ourselves. Seems like every day I run across sloppy language online. I’m not talking about X or that ilk, which is a lost cause due to haste, sloth, and/or indifference. I mean in (formerly) legit newspapers and serious blogs.

In the good old days when journalists were actually reporters who wanted to get a story right, they studied grammar and style. They all had Strunk & White and the AP or Chicago Manual of style on their desks. They had editors who knew their stuff and could hammer that stuff into you.

All that’s gone now. Everybody it seems is a grammar rogue, and just don’t care.

Here are 12 examples of grammar/style transgressions I’ve collected. See if you can spot the errors. Answers to follow:

  1. Brock Purdy, Iowa State alumni and current San Francisco 49ers quarterback is engaged to girlfriend Jenna Brandt.
  2. Headline: Kirby Smart Shares Heartwarming Story About Stetson Bennett And His Son.
  3. It’s been a wondrous collaboration for Bill and I. He and I have complimentary careers.
  4. Apple optioned Haberman’s book – which was an immediate bestseller – earlier this year but the project is now off the cards.
  5. Of course, non-Catholics, and even many Catholics, will find these claims incredulous.
  6. It was very, very illegal. Mirco was definitively out of play and the penalty flag was thrown as players from both sides got up in each other’s faces and exchanged pleasantries….Mirco was defenseless and it could have ended very poorly.
  7. Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, a longtime Democratic donor and former employer of Crist, sounded glum in an interview with CNN: “I think Charlie has a very, very tough road to hoe. And I’ve pissed money away before.”
  8. Prince Philip died in 2021 aged 99, just two months before his century.
  9. The Colts were knocking on the doorstep.
  10. Trying to figure out when this will happen essentially amounts to a speculative guessing game.
  11. Which doesn’t quite jive with Sunday’s piece.
  12. I don’t know if the victory that’s already been had will get the attention commiserate with its significance.


  1. Alumni is plural. The proper word is alumnus. If you really want to get into the weeds (and be sure to bring your weed whacker for protection) these are male nouns. Alumna and alumnae are female nouns. But pointing all this out is liable to result in a plethora of exploding crania, so you know what I’d use? The colloquial alum. Problem solved! (There should also be a comma after quarterback.)
  2. Stetson Bennett doesn’t have a son. Kirby Smart does. Should have been: Story About His Son And Stetson Bennett.
  3. While the word wondrous is technically okay, the better word is wonderful. Wondrous usually connotes fantasy. In the second sentence the word should be complementary (meaning harmonious). Not complimentary (which means flattering). And in the first sentence is the ubiquitous mistake of using I where me is the right choice. Just stop doing that! It’s such a simple thing to correct if you’re confused. Just say the sentence with only you in it. It’s been a wonderful collaboration for I. Does that sound right to you? (If you said Yes, stop right here and give me twenty pushups…on my lawn.)
  4. It’s either off the table or not in the cards.
  5. Incredulous always refers to a person or persons. Incredible is the right word.
  6. While I would have chosen definitely, the word definitively is okay in this context. But not very, very illegal (as opposed to just illegal?). The word very is flabby. Using it twice does not add anything, nor even once at the end. If you thought other’s might be an error and others’ correct, the simple rule is that after the word each the word other is always singular.
  7. When speaking (or writing dialogue) a person may use very, very colloquially. But it’s very, very hard to hoe a road. Farmers prefer hoeing rows.
  8. Centenary.
  9. You have to take a knee to knock on a doorstep. Knocking on the door is much easier.
  10. Redundant. All guessing games are speculative.
  11. Unless you’re dancing, jibe is the word.
  12. Unless you’re in mourning, the word is commensurate.

And while things go wrong all the time in tweets (or Xs), and it is too easy to hop on mistakes, sometimes typos are howlers, like this self-defeating line: Your ignirance is not a good look.

So please, people, don’t be ignirant about your grammar.

What say you? Is good grammar a lost cause? As Jimmy Stewart puts it in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, “Sometimes lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for.” Is this one worth it?

The College Dream

The Bride had to shake me awake last night from a bad dream. It’s a common occurrence around here. This one was so bad it took several seconds to cut through the horror and I awoke with a shout.

I dream all the time.

All. The. Time.

Almost every night, and they aren’t all bad. Sometimes these dreams are recurring, putting me in places so familiar I know where streets intersect in these other worlds. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, I dream of houses so often I can draw you the blue lines for construction.

The Bride and I always talk about our nighttime wanderings, for she has them on occasion, too. Many of these dreams find their way into my novels, such as one that became the foundation for my Red River novel, Unraveled. She had to wake me from that one, blubbering like a toddler and unable to discuss it for days.

Others are on the mental stove, bubbling along. She once had a dream about sixteen crosses in a front yard. I’ll do something with it some day and the title will be Sixteen Crosses, of course. That one could go anywhere.

With a hard deadline looming, I’m surprised I haven’t had the dream that fascinates me. The College Dream.

The Bride has her version and the more I investigate…

…and by that I mean I ask others at cocktail parties whether they’ve experienced the same ones by describing my own…

…I find that it’s universal among those of us who have ever been to college.

In mine, I’m walking across a dream campus (again one that I’m familiar with though it doesn’t exist) after parking much farther away than I’d like on the back row lined with pine trees (I guess I’m detail oriented). The features are so clear that if I was an artist, I could draw or paint it. Then I’m inside the building that’s vaguely familiar and I realize I’ve missed all the classes on one particular subject, (let’s say math because I’m not good at it). There’s a test I haven’t studied for, and I can’t find the room, because though it’s been on the schedule, I haven’t been there.

I’m about to fail the class, and likely the semester.

Some online therapists say this dream is our brain telling us that we can get through whatever is stressing us out. One we wake up and realize we’ve already successfully survived college and we survive the stress that’s sparking these dreams.

I’m not a psychologist, but I can give you all the online explanations that I don’t understand such as during dreams, the emotional brain takes over the cognitive brain as we sink into the REM state.

“The metabolic activity is higher in the emotional, involuntary, more primitive limbic system. In addition, there is decreased metabolic activity in the prefrontal cortex involved in consciously directed thoughts, planned behavior, emotional self-controlexecutive function (prioritizing, risk-analysis, higher cognition, judgment, and the focused alert mindful state).” Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed. Radical Teaching, Psychology Today.

I’m not exactly sure what all that means, but these dreams about forgetting something might reflect our mature responsibility towards a job or duty, even though we’d rather be doing something else, like cleaning the garage or binge-watching the newest streaming series.

According to Willis, our collective college dream is “a reminder not to miss an opportunity or take a more active role in one’s destiny.”

No matter how you look at it, we’ve signed a contract for a novel or short story to be delivered on a particular date, or in the case of those still trying to get published, we still need to “show up for work each day,” because our subconscious is telling us to get our butts in that chair and write.

And since I’m on that hard, looking deadline, I’ll quietly back out with this one question. Have you ever had “the college dream?”