Retreats, Short Stories, and Networking

Retreats, Short Stories, and Networking

Lake Quinault, in the Olympic Rainforest

I have become a fan of writer’s retreats. You can focus on your writing, write something different if you want, and also meet other writers, making new acquaintances, and maybe even a lasting friendship or two. In fact, I just returned from five days at the Rainforest Writers Retreat, held annually at Lake Quinault in Washington State’s magnificent Olympic Rainforest. The retreat was founded in 2007 by Patrick Swenson, author and publisher of Fairwood Press. Rainforest now runs for three back-to-back five-day sessions each year, from just after Presidents Day until the second Sunday in March. Thirty or so writers attend each session.

Rainforest Village

My first Rainforest was in February 2019, Session 2, and I’ve attended three more, always Session 2. I also attended the virtual Rainforest retreat in 2021 when Covid canceled the in-person event. Usually I work on a novel while I’m there, but last year I wrote several short stories. The energy at the retreat is always inspiring, and in fact Patrick encourages those drafting fiction to post their word counts, for a fun way to motivate ourselves, and enjoy a little good-hearted competition. Most of the attendees are writing science fiction, fantasy or horror, but there are mystery and romance writers at work there as well. You can also hang out with other writers, attend one-hour workshops, share group meals together, and (weather permitting) take a literal hike in the woods.

So, with that in mind, today’s Words of Wisdom finds three relevant excerpts from TKZ archives. First up is Laura Benedict on the power of the writing retreat. Then, Jodie Renner gives tips on writing short fiction. Last but certainly not least John Gilstrap discusses networking for writers. The full posts are linked at the end of each excerpt and are well worth reading.

Way back in early January, I needed to get some serious, concentrated words on my WIP, which was due on Valentine’s Day. ( I wrote a bit about it a few Wednesdays ago on my 10K-A-Day post.) I love my family, but if there are other people in the house, my concentration flees. Sometimes I’m able to shut my office door, but I’m always wondering what’s going on on the other side of it. So I often find myself doing things that are not writing during the daylight hours, and only writing after ten p.m. when everyone has gone to bed. I love the quiet. No voices. No music. Not much happening on FaceBook. Snoring animals. Owls outside my window. Those are perfect writing conditions for my ADD brain. Sadly, the not-perfect part is that I routinely go to bed at 1:30 and get up at 7:30. It wears on a body.

So, last January I got myself an AirBnB apartment in St. Louis for several days. It was on a cul-de-sac, and very quiet. Blissfully quiet. Lonesome, even. The chair was uncomfortable and kept me upright. I was paying lots of money to be there, so I was mindful. I only had to cook for myself. (That was weird.) I didn’t stay up all that late, and I wrote in 2-3 long sessions each day. It was my second-favorite writing retreat I’d ever taken, after a solo week at an inn on Ocracoke Island in 2002. (In fact I think it was only my 2nd writing retreat, period.)

But I did get in another writing retreat this year. Over Labor Day Weekend, I went to the Nashville home of another writer—along with four other women. That was something I’d never done before. (Though I did go to a scrapbooking lake retreat around 2004. I didn’t and don’t scrapbook, but I journalled and did needlepoint. On reflection, it was probably a little odd that I went. Still, there was wine and the women were friendly.)

Writing in a crowd felt awkward at first. There was plenty of room to spread out, so we didn’t actually even have to see one another if we didn’t want to. But eventually I adjusted. Everyone was serious about getting words done. Then we gathered for meals, taking turns cooking. In the evening, there was wine and much discussion and much laughter. We talked about our careers and the industry and craft, and told stories that were harrowing or hysterically funny. It was a completely different kind of retreat.

Laura Benedict—October 5, 2016



  1. Your character needs to react! Show your character’s emotional and physical reactions, both inner and outer. And to bring the character and scene to life on the page, evoke as many of the five senses as possible or appropriate, not just sight and hearing.
  2. Every page needs tension of some sort. It might be overt, like an argument, or subtle, like inner resentments, disagreements, questioning, or anxiety. If everybody is in agreement, shake things up a little.
  3. Dialogue in fiction is like real conversation on steroids. Skip the yadda-yadda, blah-blah, and add spark and tension to all your dialogue. And make the characters’ words and expressions sound as natural and authentic as you can. Each character should speak differently, and not like the author. Read your dialogue out loud or role-play with a friend to make sure it sounds real and moves along at a good clip.
  4. Build the conflict to a riveting climax. Keep putting your protagonist in more hot water until the big “battle,” showdown, or struggle—whether it’s physical, psychological, or interpersonal.
  5. Go out with a bang. Don’t stretch out the conclusion – tie it up pretty quickly. Like your first paragraph, your final paragraph needs to be memorable, and also satisfying to the readers. Try to create a surprise twist at the end – but of course it needs to make sense, given all the other details of the story.
  6. Provide some reader satisfaction at the end. It’s not necessary to tie everything up in a neat bow, but do give your reader some sense of resolution, some payout for their investment of time and effort in your story. As in novels, most readers want the character they’ve been rooting for all along to resolve at least some of their problems. But be sure the protagonist they’ve been identifying with succeeds through their own courage, determination, and resourcefulness, not through coincidence, luck, or a rescue by someone else.

Jodie Renner—July 28, 2014


You need to meet other industry professionals.  Pick a conference, any conference. They grow like weeds around the country–around the world, for that matter.  I can’t speak to other genres, but in the world of mysteries and thrillers, you could spend virtually every weekend at a conference.  Yes, they cost money, but before you complain about that, remember that writing is a business, and every business requires investment.

  • 100% of all business at a conference is conducted in the bar. You don’t have to drink, but just as lions on the hunt target watering holes for their dinner, smart rookies scope out the bar at the conference hotel to meet people. Authors of all stature are there to hang out with old friends and meet new ones. Agents and editors are there to develop relationships with existing clients and to scope out new ones.
  • Have a plan. Are you attending the conference to simply get to know people and hang out, or are you going there to accomplish a particular goal?  If you’re on the hunt for an agent, be sure to research who’s attending and what kind of books they’re looking for.  Basically, read the program booklet.
  • Don’t be shy. Okay, you’re an introvert and are uncomfortable around people.  I get that.  Now, get over it. This is a business, and contacts are not going to come to you. To a person, everyone you see at the bar knows that they’re in a public place among hungry strangers, and they’re willing–anxious, even–to talk with shy rookies.
  • Know what you want. After sharing a laugh and a few stories about life and family, be ready for the question, “So, how can I help you?”  That’s your cue for your ten-second elevator pitch delivered without notes. With a smile.  The home run here is a request to send a manuscript. Then chat some more.  This is a people business, so be a real person.
  • Hang out with the crowd you want to belong to.  I’m always amazed–and a little dismayed–at conferences when I see all the rookies hanging out with each other, while the veterans and bestsellers hang out separately. I don’t mean to be crass–and remember, this is a business conference–but your fellow rookies are not in positions to help you.  If Connolly and Lehane and Deaver and Gerritsen are all hanging out, drinking and laughing, pull up a chair.  If the Agent of All Agents is holding court, join the crowd. Unless it’s an intense one-on-one business meeting, I guarantee that no one will ask you to leave. (And why in the world would anyone choose such a public forum for an intense one-on-one business meeting?)

Overall, “networking” as a concept attempts to complicate something that is inherently simple. You have goals that you wish to accomplish, and you want to get to know people who can help you get there.  As an alternative step, you want to get to know someone who can introduce you to someone who can help you.  It’s as easy–and as hard–as showing up and asking.

John Gilstrap—January 2, 2019


  1. Have you ever attending a writing retreat? If so, what was your experience like? If you haven’t yet, would you like to attend one?
  2. If you write short stories, any tips on writing them?
  3. How do you feel about networking, be it at a conference, a convention, a writer’s retreat, book fair ETC? Any advice on meeting other writers at events?

Reader Friday: Weapon of Choice

There have been many excellent articles presented here at TKZ on the topic of self-defense, and particularly the use of guns. Here are links to two of John’s articles:

Today, however, we are talking about offensive weapons, weapons of battle.

Imagine that you are part of a large colony of writers who have been held captive in a medieval castle. Your group has escaped the castle in the middle of the night and is on the run. You know where the enemy army is encamped, and you have decided to attack preemptively. Better to take them by surprise than to be attacked while you are on the run, and they are gaining on you. Your group is large, and with the element of surprise, you can win. You hope.

So, it is time to choose your weapon. Since this scenario is mixed genre fiction, your choice of weapons is large – pick any weapon, or even invent one. You must, however, be able to carry it by yourself, along with ammunition (if needed) and a power source (if you’re playing with sci-fi).

Now, please tell us which weapon you have chosen, and why. How do you intend to use it? A paragraph or two of you doing battle with the enemy’s Goliath would be good. We’ll watch from a safe distance and cheer you on to victory.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~



Beware he who would hijack your life code to achieve immortality.

Perfect Strand, #6 in the Mad River Magic series, is currently available at Amazon for $0.99.

Writers Beware: Here’s what readers really hate

By Elaine Viets

Does the novel you’re writing have a long dream sequence? And it’s in italics, to enhance the ethereal effect? How about sizzling sex scenes? And, for comic relief, a talking cat who solves crimes and a wisecracking kid who’s five going on forty?
Uh, you may want to rethink that work in progress.
Ron Charles, the Washington Post book critic, “asked readers of our Book Club newsletter to describe the things that most annoy them in books. The responses were a tsunami of bile.”
Here are some things that Ron salvaged from the tsunami.

(1) Readers hate dream sequences.
Yes, I know dream sequences are a staple of literature. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov has guilty dreams, including one about a whipped mare. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the Boy Who Lived is deceived by thoughts implanted by a bad guy. Winston in 1984 worries his dreams will get him in trouble with the Thought Police. A Christmas Carol is a long life-changing dream. And then there’s Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
So why should we be wary of dream sequences?
Raging readers told Ron Charles this:
“‘I absolutely hate dream sequences,’ writes Michael Ream. ‘They are always SO LITERAL,’ Jennifer Gaffney adds, ‘usually an example of lazy writing.’”
Aha! So readers hate lazy writing and literal dream sequences. Writing coaches caution writers to avoid cheap tricks, especially the old “and then I woke up” dodge. They say you can use dream sequences if the dreams are premonitions, illustrate an important inner conflict, or help a protagonist realize something major. In short, the dreams must advance the plot. So craft your dream sequences carefully.

(2) Readers hate historical anachronisms and factual inaccuracies.
The Washington Post says, “Karen Viglione Lauterwasser despairs over errors ‘like calling the divisions in a hockey game “quarters” or having a pentagon-shaped table with six chairs.’ Deborah Gravel warns authors that taking a cruise to Alaska is not enough to write a novel about the Last Frontier. Kristi Hart explains that when your characters are boiling maple sap to make syrup, they should not be stirring it. ‘You just boil it until the sugar content is correct, and then you’re done.’”
My pet peeve includes the treatment of black people in historical novels in the first half of the Twentieth Century. With some exceptions, until the late 1950s or 1960s, black people were not allowed to eat in most white restaurants or sit at lunch counters with whites. Nor could they stay at white hotels, go to white schools, use white toilets, or even drink out of white people’s water fountains.
In 1968, I encountered my first segregated water fountain, on a trip through Mississippi. In the local courthouse, the white people drank chilled water from a modern metal fountain. Black people had to drink warm water from a dinky white porcelain fountain. At a Catholic church in the same state, my family arrived late for the service, so we sat in the back. An usher told us that section was for black people (actually, he said “Negroes”) and we had to move.
Encountering this segregation was shocking, but it existed, and to deny it in novels is to deny the shame, hurt and humiliation black people suffered – and still do.
(3) Readers hate typos and grammatical errors.
This is also bugaboo for TKZ readers and writers, and we’ve written often about how to catch typos, while understanding those slippery little devils slip into the best books. But typos seem to be getting worse, especially since traditional publishers are cutting back on copy editors and some indie authors don’t hire them.
The Washington Post noted: “Patricia Tannian, a retired copy editor, writes, ‘It seems that few authors can spell “minuscule” or know the difference between ‘flout’ and ‘flaunt.’ Katherine A. Powers, Book World’s audiobook reviewer, laments that so many ‘authors don’t know the difference between “lie” and “lay.’” TKZ’s Terry Odell wrote a helpful blog on that subject. Read it and sin no more.

Personally, I wish writers would know the difference between grizzly and grisly murders. While it’s true the Cocaine Bear and some bears in the wild do kill humans, in most mysteries humans performing those grisly murders.
And please realize that the South American country is spelled Colombia, not Columbia. There’s more, but it’s not a good idea to get me started.
“While we’re at it,” the Washington Post wrote, “let’s avoid ‘bemused.’ Bemused ‘doesn’t mean what you think it means,’ says Paula Willey.”
And please, please learn how to use “chute,” as in where you toss your dirty clothes. I’ve seen major writers call it a “laundry shoot,” which can put holes in clothes.

(4) Readers hate bloated books.
According to the Washington Post, “Jean Murray says, ‘First books by best-selling authors are reasonable in length; then they start believing that every word they write is golden and shouldn’t be cut.’ She notes that Elizabeth George’s first novel, A Great Deliverance, was 432 pages. Her most recent, Something to Hide, is more than 700.
“But it’s not just the books that are too long,” the WashPo says. “Everything in them is too long, too. Readers complained about interminable prologues, introductions, expositions, chapters, explanations, descriptions, paragraphs, sentences, conversations, sex scenes, fistfights and italicized passages.”
(5) Readers hate long italicized passages.
“‘Long passages in italics drive me nuts,’ Susan Spénard told the Washington Post.
“‘Cormac McCarthy does entire chapters in italics,’ adds Nathan Pate. ‘Only the rest of his writing redeems that.’”
(6) Readers hate when writers don’t use quote marks.
“‘Sometimes you have to reread a passage to determine who is speaking,’ one reader said.
Quick now, a few more complaints:
(7) Readers hate “gratuitously confusing timelines.”
“‘Everything doesn’t have to be a linear timeline,’ concedes Kate Stevens, ‘but often authors seem to employ a structure that makes the book unreadable (or at least very difficult to follow). There seems to be no reason why this is done other than to show off how clever they are.’”
(8) Readers hate two kinds of show-offs.

“Unrealistically clever children or talking animals . . . are deeply irksome in novels — along with disabled characters who exist only to provide treacly inspiration.”
Some cozy readers adore talking animals who solve crimes, so this objection doesn’t apply to everyone.
(9) A few more things readers hate, according the Washington Post:
– “Susan C. Falbo is tired of ‘protagonists who have had a hard day, finally stagger home and take a scalding hot shower.’” My protagonists sometimes do that, so I guess the key here is to not overdo it.

– “Connie Ogle and Susan Dee have had it with ‘lip biting.’ Ogle explains, ‘If real people bit their lips with the frightening regularity of fictional characters, our mouths would be a bloody mess.’
– “Gianna LaMorte is tired of seeing ‘someone escape a small town and rent a large house, get a job at a local paper or make a living gardening.’” The person who flees to a small town and makes a living writing for a newspaper gets my goat. Especially if they have their own office and come and go as they please. Small town newspapers barely pay enough to keep reporters in cat food. And editors want to know where they can reach you at all times.

And I’m with Tobin Anderson, who wrote, “Vomiting is the new crying. I think it’s part of the whole hyper-valuation of trauma — and somehow tears seem too weak, too mundane. But imagine a funeral filled with upchuckers.” I’m seeing a lot of barfing on TV these days, and watching folks toss their cookies while I’m eating in front of the tube makes me want to . . . well, you get the point.
So, TKZ readers, what are your pet peeves?

Pre-order my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, The Dead of Night, to be published April 4.



Such a Deal!
Bundling Your Ebooks

By PJ Parrish

My husband does the grocery shopping in our house. He’s a sucker for buy-one-get-one free. He can’t resist, bless his little hunting-and-gathering heart. I just did a tour of our closets and pantry. We have four bottles of Gardini’s Caesar Dressing, three six-packs of Swiss Miss cocoa mix, five cans of Edge shaving cream, six bags of Greenie dog treats and 52 rolls of toilet paper.

The other day, after hitting the garden section at Home Depot, I popped the trunk to load in my mulch only to find the trunk stuffed with four 8-roll packs of Bounty paper towels. He knows we have no room for this in our small house, and this is a bit of a marital turf war, but he can’t help himself. Why buy just one if you can get three at a great price?

Okay, he did come home the other day with four bottles of my favorite pinot. It was buy-one-get-one day at Publix. Wine can go a long ways to soothing the savage wife.

Who can resist a real bargain? Buy-one-get-one-free packaging is a time-honored ploy to hook customers. Musicians have been onto this since the Great Vinyl Age. TV specials and movies are routinely packaged as one box-set either as physical discs or streaming options. (Being a Luddite, I treasure my CD box-set of the complete original Star Trek).

I realize this post isn’t for everyone. But if you already have some books out there, you might considering bundling. Bundled books can stoke new interest in old titles, especially if you a series, because readers love to move easily from one book to the next. Or perhaps, you’ve written books on one subject — like our own James here does with his series on fiction craft. Even if you’re still slaving away on that first book, file this away for the future marketing option.

I’m writing about this today only because my sister Kelly and I have finally gotten around to doing this. Today marks the debut of our first bundle in our Louis Kincaid series. I don’t usually go in for blatant self-promotion, but even if you don’t buy it, go check it out just to see if it might work for you.

We’re able to do this because we finally have the rights back to almost every book in our series. We’ve redesigned and self-published all the titles as ebooks and trade paperbacks, but we’re banking on the idea that a bargain bundle might stoke sales and reap new readers. Our plan is the bundle three titles at a time over the next couple months.

Okay, so what do you have to do to get this off the ground? My sister Kelly is going to answer here because she has handled all the technical aspects of this, including the formatting and cover designs. Also, my friend Neil Plakcy will weigh in. Neil has four series in bundle now: Golden Retriever Mysteries, Have Body, Will Guard, Mahu Investigations, and Angus Green FBI Thrillers. He has also bundled up a group of young adult romances, and collected together three unrelated contemporary gay romance novels. After retiring from teaching college, he now writes full-time, kept company by his husband and their two rambunctious golden retrievers. Check out his bundles at

1. Why bother, if the individual books are already available?

Neil: The advantage is that readers can get a 600-page book for one credit. Bundling also helps read-through — the reader doesn’t have to go back to the store to get the next book. It’s already there. I also use the bundles to generate read-through. If you got 1-3 for free, or through Kindle Unlimited, I hope that you’ll be motivated to keep reading.

Kris: Neil’s point about read-through is a good one. A new release deserves its own launch and breathing space. But if the books have been out for some time, it can generate new interest. Binge consumption is the norm these days, and a box-set of your work at a good price entices readers.  As indie superstar Kristine Kathryn Rusch says, “The best way to get noticed is by publishing enough that readers can binge for a weekend.” Binge readers who buy box-sets are often a different audience than those who buy individual books. Why not go after them?

2. How do you decide which books to bundle together?

Neil: By theme? (I’ve done a set with stand alone gay romances) Or by series? That’s the traditional way I have done them. I usually do a three-book bundle but I’ve also experimented with a larger set. I’ve seen other authors who will put together a complete series. In my case, I’m usually still writing in that series.

Kris: Neil is very prolific. For us, we have just our Louis Kincaid series, so the decision is easy. It seems to me bundling would work best for series writers. Or perhaps you have a sci-fi or fantasy trilogy; that seems a natural. Also, romance novels in any given sub-genre, given the rapacious nature of its readers, would be a good fit.

Kelly: It’s important to keep the tone consistent in your bundle. Don’t bundle fantasy with romantic suspense, for instance. It takes time to create bundles. Use your time wisely. Three is a nice bundle, but I’ve seen authors do two-book bundles (say, a story and its sequel.) Authors also bundle 10 or more. Neil bundled nine in his golden retriever series — quite a haul for readers!


3. How do you set pricing?

Neil: Amazon lowers the royalty percentage for books over $9.99. I usually use $6.99 — that’s a bargain for three books that are usually $3.99 or $4.99 each. But most of my revenue from bundles comes from Kindle Unlimited, not from sales.

Kelly: If you’re a big gorilla, you can price your bundle high. But for the average Joe, you have to make the reader feel they are getting a deal.

4. How do convey that it’s a box set instead of a regular book?

Kelly: The most important thing you do is make sure the image you upload to Amazon or others looks like a 3D box-set (as opposed to a flat cover). Remember, the first thing a potential reader sees is this image. I designed all our individual covers. But when  I went to design the box-set image, I knew it had to look like a realistic box-set that you’d have on a bookshelf. I tried it first in photoshop but it looked amateurish, so I invested in a template specifically for this.

Neil: I use a 3-D cover that shows the front cover of the first book in the series, with an extra ribbon that indicates it’s “Books 4-6 of the Have Body, Will Guard series.” Also you can see the titles of all three books on the spine.

5. Can I do this myself?

Kelly: Yes, of course. But even if you are proficient in cover design already, it’s still a bit of a learning curve. Or hire someone to do this for you. I have designed all Neil’s covers and his box-sets. Formatting the books in the bundle is not hard if you’re used to formatting already. But it is time-consuming. You must combine three manuscripts into one file, and that can be troublesome. You’re now dealing with a 900-page file vs a 300-page file. Chapter headings can move, double breaks go crazy, and the tables of content can be a headache. If you have trouble getting professional looking interior ebooks, consider buying a template for that as well. Don’t wing it. Once you get the hang of a good template, you’ll be happy.

Kris: Back to those covers: Ugly covers signal amateur hour. If your covers are ugly, consider rebranding all your covers first before bundling.

6. Do I leave my individual books up if I upload a bundle?

Kelly: Absolutely. It’s one more product on your shelf. At the supermarket, you can buy one roll of toilet paper or 12. So it should be with your ebooks.

7. Is this really for me?

Kelly: If you’re like us, and your books have been out there for while, it spices up your bookshelf. If you are very prolific, like Neil, and have a several series and multiple stand alones, bundling them up can really expand your publishing real estate. Don’t let the possible problems intimidate you. Think creatively. You can bundle anything — and rebrand old material — if you pay attention to imagery, tone and genre.

5. What about bundling with other authors?

Neil: I have thought about it but haven’t found the right partners. Also the royalty accounting can be complicated, especially if your income is going to come from KU, since there’s no way to tell “which” pages the reader read.

Kris: This can get really messy in terms of dividing income and promotion duties. Whose publishing account will the box-set be loaded onto? Who gets the income and makes sure it is divided fairly? (Amazon allows you only to have one person on an account.). How will you handle this come tax time? Really do your homework if you are considering this. Get a legal partnership agreement. Kelly and I have one, and we like and trust each other. What happens if you and your box-set partner have a falling out? Marriage is beautiful. Divorce is ugly.

Our Louis Kincaid bundle goes live this morning. $6.99. Such a deal. Click here to check us out.



Can Writing Heal Physical Pain?

Let me preface this post by saying, discussing my personal struggles with pain is my least favorite subject. The only reason I’m even broaching this subject is because I discovered a cool connection between writing and pain management, and I hope it’ll help those who need it.

Last week, New Hampshire got hammered with one snowstorm after another, the totality of which resulted in snowbanks taller than I am. With such unsettled barometric pressure and weather patterns, my RA and psoriatic arthritis kicked into overdrive. For me, writing has always been the best pain medicine. When I’m in the zone, I leave my fractured skeleton in the chair and escape into my fictional world. But something—email, social media, direct messages, marketing, blogging, phone calls, and texts—kept yanking me out of my fictive dreamland when I needed it most, and the moment it did, my body screamed in protest.

And so, for self-preservation, I climbed back into my writing cave, padlocked and soundproofed the door behind me. Hence why you didn’t see me in the comment section last week, or on social media. For once, I put my own wellbeing above everything else. By the time I emerged from the writing cave a week later, I’d added over 30K words to the WIP. Now, I only have one or two chapters left to reach The End of Mayhem Series #7. Yay!


The U.S. Pain Foundation describes chronic pain as the following:

When you try to put your hand over a hot burner on the stove, your brain signals to you that it’s hot and you quickly move your hand away. This acute pain center lights up circuits in the nociceptive area, the acute brain center, alerting you to move away. 

Imagine if you can’t move your hand away from the burner even though you know it’s going to hurt. You get that signal telling you it’s too hot, but you cannot move your hand away. How would you feel? Angry? Enraged? Fearful? Panicked? You can’t stop the pain even though you know it’s coming. These natural emotions set off chemicals and hormones like fight-or-flight adrenaline, cortisol, and histamines which sensitize the nervous system, raise anxiety levels, and amplify our sensation of pain.

Is it any wonder we’d seek an escape?

With chronic pain, the pain travels through the emotional area of the brain or sympathetic nervous system. The emotion and pain pathways are so closely linked that it’s only possible to experience meaningful pain relief when you break this connection. Separating our emotions from our pain pathway is a learned skill, and writing plays an important role.

When we write, our brains release chemicals that calm the nervous system. Daily writing creates new neural circuits in the brain, giving us new ways to respond to old pain triggers. The new, healthy circuits eventually grow stronger than the old pain circuits.

A 1986 study uncovered something extraordinary, something that inspired generations of researchers to conduct several hundred more studies.

The gist is this. Professor Pennebaker asked students to spend 15 minutes writing about the biggest trauma of their lives. Or, if they hadn’t experienced trauma, to write about a difficult time. Meanwhile, a control group spent the same number of sessions (4) writing a description of something neutral like a tree or their dorm room.

For the six months that followed the study, the professor monitored how often students visited the health center. Remarkably, the students who’d written about their trauma and real emotions made significantly fewer trips to the doctor. Ever since, the field of psychoneuroimmunology has been exploring the link between what’s now known as expressive writing, and the functioning of the immune system. Psychoneuroimmunology studies examine the effect of expressive writing on everything from asthma and arthritis to breast cancer and migraines, with surprising beneficial results.

Writing even heals physical wounds faster.

Brave volunteers engaged in expressive writing; a second group did not. Days later, they were all given a local anesthetic and a punch biopsy at the top of their inner arm. Researchers monitored the 4mm wounds. The volunteers who engaged in expressive writing healed faster than the others.

What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this occurred through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d released pent-up emotions. But then Pennebaker dissected the language used by the two groups.

The fast healer’s point of view changed over the course of the four sessions. They began with 1st person, then moved to deep 3rd, suggesting they were looking at the event from different perspectives. They also used “because” and the like, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative. The results proved the simple act of labeling your feelings and putting them into a story boosts the immune system.

Sounds a lot like crafting fiction steeped in real emotion, doesn’t it?

What Pennebaker found curious but makes perfect sense to me (and you, probably) is that simply imagining a traumatic event and writing a story about it also made wounds heal faster, concluding that the writing has less to do with resolving past issues and more to do with finding a way of channeling real emotions.

Despite several decades of research showing that writing works to manage pain, it’s rarely used clinically. Also, the process works better for some people than others, depending on how well they engage with the process.

So, the next time you’re in pain, lock yourself away in your writing cave. Your body and WIP will both thank you. 😉

Do you have any personal experience to share? What do think about these studies? 

For Love of the Pencil

by James Scott Bell

We’ve talked in the past about doing some of our writing by hand, with an actual pen on actual paper. Since my handwriting resembles Foghorn Leghorn’s footprints, I have generally kept to the keyboard. I do, however, like to do mind maps with pen and paper. Sometimes I’ll block out a scene that way.

Today I’d like to say something about the pencil. I do love a good pencil. It’s a writing instrument, sure, but also an underlining buddy, perfect for marking up a book. And subject to change, for a good pencil carries with it the original delete key—the eraser. Many a time I’ve rubbed out a word or line, and whisked away the little red leavings with the back of my hand. A fresh start! Unlike the unforgiving pen, the pencil is happy to do it all over again.

It has been asserted that that a manuscript of Theophilus, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire from 829–842, shows signs of having been written with a black-lead pencil. But the first allusion we have of the pencil comes from a treatise on fossils written in the mid-1500s by Conrad Gesner of Zurich. He was a Swiss naturalist, and describes a writing implement formed of wood and “lead,” which was really a composition called stimmi anglicanum. I have no idea what that means, but that’s what it says in the pencil article in my grandfather’s Encyclopedia Britannica set.

Another source:

Black lead was first used in chunks, called marking stones. Later, the material was cut into small rods or strips and wrapped in twine to provide a comfort- able grip and additional strength. Users unwound the twine from the point, as necessary. These instruments made a fine black line, reminiscent of the writing from the fine Roman brush called a pencilium; thus the instrument became known as a lead pencil.

Today, the #1 is the softest, and darkest, of the pencil family. It is therefore perfect for marking up any page, and especially useful for thin pages, as in a Bible. The harder pencils almost tear through pages like that because you have to press harder to make the line good and dark.

The #1 skates easily across any page. And it’s great for doodles and mind maps, too.

But it’s gotten bullied almost out of existence by the cocky #2.

That’s because #2 became the de facto pencil in education. To fill in those Os on tests it is always, “Use a #2 pencil.” There is no earthly reason for this exclusivity, but then again, there is no earthly reason for a lot of things these days.

The other day I went to Staples to buy some #1s, but found nothing but #2s on the rack. I went to the cash register and asked, “Do you carry #1 pencils?”

The nice young fellow shook his head. “We just don’t.”

“That is a sad state of affairs,” I said.

He looked puzzled.

“#1s have been shunted aside,” I said.

“You can always go online,” he said.

Which I did, right out there in the parking lot. I went to Amazon (natch) on my phone and ordered these.

And I ponder. Since when should #2 be given more glory than #1? How many books are there about Stephen A. Douglas? Or Walter Mondale? Or the 1990s Buffalo Bills?

All hail the #1 pencil!

Does a pencil figure in your everyday reading or writing?

Scratching the Surface

I have a new desk!

Well, truthfully it’s not new. The person who gave it to me said it was built around 1926, June 7 of that year according to a part stamp, and used by one of the most prestigious attorneys in Paris, Texas. It weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of a buffalo, and cost me not a dime.

I already had a desk, because that’s an essential part of being a writer. Thinking back, my first “desk” was a dented gray typewriter table that held a portable Smith Corona typing machine, and half a ream of paper on the left fold out wing, and two or three typed and oft-corrected pages on the right one that were the result of an hours’ worth of work.

That was back when I worked in a public library after high school and junior college, and had to set it up when I got home after class each time I wanted to be creative. Wish I’d kept those horrible pages. Back then it was hard to tear myself away from the books I was reading in order to write, and when I was struggling to come up with just the right words, I wished I was reading.

My next desk was made from cinderblocks and a piece of three-quarter plywood that sat in a corner of my first apartment. Only marginally larger than the typing table, it also served as a impromptu bar during parties. I hate to say it, but that was the best use for it at the time.

From there I built an oak rolltop that worked better as a hand-writing surface. The nostalgic appearance of those classic old pieces of furniture is worth more than the desks themselves, which seems to collect a truck load of assorted detritus that never seemed to belong to me. It barely worked with the old manual typewriter, and my first 286 computer looked ridiculous perched on the narrow surface in front of tiny drawers and cubbyholes.

But in my mind, authors wrote at impressive desks and therefore, I needed the proper accoutrements. The search continued.

The Bride and I married in 1998, and set up housekeeping with mostly hand-me-down furniture. I still had my parents’ tiny wooden Sears and Roebuck kitchen table. I sanded it down, refinished the wood, and reupholstered the seat cushions. Finished, it looked like a dining room afterthought in my little office, but it served the purpose. I wrote my first novel there, alternately typing and staring out the window and onto our front yard.

The next three books were birthed on the same piece of antique furniture Mom and Dad bought in 1950. Our close friends Mike and Keri Miller must have gotten tired of looking at the table every time they came over, because Mike gave me his old desk when he bought a new one. Made somewhere around 2000, it was so heavy I was afraid I’d have to add a new pier to support the slab.

More books were created on that desk with a finish so easily scarred one of my grandkids marked it forever with her fingernails when she was pretending to be a dragon. I kept it though, because it was a serviceable work surface and by then I didn’t care what it looked like.

Fast forward to this year when my hunting buddy and inspiration for the Tucker Snow series (the first, Hard Country, releases August 3, 2023), Constable Rick Easterwood (Ret), almost begged me to take an antique desk his wife, Kim, had procured and refinished. To put it simply, the huge desk took up over half of his garage and he wanted it gone.

Stephen King talks about desks, both large and small, necessary and unnecessary, in his book, On Writing. I took his story to heart and never aspired to have a fancy piece of writing furniture. But when I went over to see the desk Rick called about, I decided I wanted it.

So I have a massive, antique piece of furniture the grandcritters call the Spider Desk, because the wood grain on one end looks exactly like a spider.

So does it help me writer better? Nope. I’ve written in my recliner, lying in bed, and on the console in my pickup. Once on a deer hunt, it was so cold I couldn’t stay in the woods. I started my truck’s engine and when the thermostat opened and glorious heat poured through the vents, I sat in the back seat with my legs protruding between the driver and passenger seats, resting them on that same console and wrote with a fury, holding the computer in my lap.

The new desk speaks to me. It’s a serviceable conversation piece that I write on, and I love the stinkin’ thing. I finished the second Tucker Snow, Achilles’ Heel, on The Spider.

Furniture isn’t important. The bookshelves, the desks, and whatever computer or writing device you use are simply additional instruments that help you unlock your imagination and get a novel on paper.

In my opinion, it isn’t the desk or its placement in the house or room that counts. It’s the fact that you have to put your rear in a seat somewhere, turn off the television and stuff that infernal device we call a phone deep down into a well somewhere and get to work.

Should I make that clearer? Turn the phone off, get away from social media, and show up for work on whatever surface works for you.

With that said, do you have a precious piece of furniture to write on, and do you feel it’s essential to your creative process?

Reader Friday – Castle Chronicles #3

To Do, or Not To Do

Two weeks ago, we began these chronicles with standing before the New World Ruler and reading the opening to one of our stories. We successfully gained admission to the 1001 Authorial Knights. Whew! We survived.

Then, last week, we discovered we could take a prolonged research vacation, and we picked our location(s). Some of us chose a globe-trotting “Around the World in 180 Days.”

Now, we’re back in the castle – our writer’s prison – cold, spartan rooms on the upper level of the castle. At least we have a good view, but it’s a bit cold with openings and no windows.

And now, the intrigue begins. (FPP/first doorway). Rumors and rumblings are beginning about rebellion/escape/revolt – scary things that make you shudder.

Sir Judas is standing off in the corner, jingling some coins in his pocket. Sir Robin and Lady Marian are defying the rules and are together, whispering. Walking past Robin’s open door, you notice he is disassembling his bed and beginning to make a longbow.

And, Willy Shakestick has just been hauled in from England. He’s standing at his window, holding a skull, and muttering over and over, “To see or not to see.”

You know you will be forced to take sides. You groan. Why can’t everybody just get along? You’ve struggled through sleepless nights trying to decide.

So, what will it be?

  • Will you join the revolution?
  • Will you lead or follow?
  • Or will you just write about it?

The Art of Being Interviewed

I planned this piece as How to be a Good Podcast Guest. But as I plugged away in research, I realized the tips I’ll list are just as applicable to regular online conversations like Zooms and written guest posts. To keep on track, though, let’s focus on how to behave as a guest during a video podcast. After all, there is an art to being interviewed.

First, a look at how big today’s podcast world is. I found a statistics site called DemandSage and dug into their podcast stats as of 23February2023. Here are some interesting bits:

  • There’re an estimated 464.7 million podcast listeners globally.
  • That’s expected to reach 504.9 million by the end of 2024.
  • It’s up from 274.8 million in 2019—approaching double.
  • There’re over 5 million podcast sites with over 70 million episodes combined.
  • Over 100 million Americans regularly tune in to podcasts.
  • 78% of US citizens are aware of podcasts.
  • 28% listen to at least one podcast per week.
  • This year the podcast industry’s value is $2 billion USD.
  • Next year, 2024, it’s expected to be $4 billion.
  • 79% of Americans who enjoy podcasts download the episodes to their mobile smartphones.
  • 15% still use a web browser and only 6% use a tablet.
  • Apple is the leading podcast streamer followed by Spotify.
  • 90% of podcasts are pre-recorded. Only 10% go live.
  • The majority of podcasts are 20-40 minutes long.

You’re probably wondering why I’m qualified to write a post about podcasts. No, I don’t host a podcast, although the thought has shot through my mind. My experience is from being a guest—being interviewed by podcast hosts, some with large audiences.

Also, I’ve been a resource person in webinars and on talk shows. In the past few years, I’ve had several dozen online appearances and now it’s common to have one guest podspot per week and a half. Today, for instance, I’m on a crime writing podcast based in Ireland. (I hope my west coast Canadian accent amuses them.)

On with it. I’ll break my tips into three areas. Before the show, during the show, and after the show.

Before the Show

Be on time. This is crucial. Do not be late or arrive at the last second. It’s rude and unprofessional and you wouldn’t want anyone doing that to you.

Know your material and be prepared. This sounds so basic, but it’s the key to a meaningful performance. The host’s audience tunes in to get something out. Make sure you’re ready to give it.

Be familiar with your host and their show’s style. It’s a good idea to watch a couple of previous episodes if you’re not familiar with the program.

Tell the host what to ask you. This might sound vain, but you are the resource the host is presenting. You should know more about your particular subject matter than your host and it can be particularly helpful for them to formulate questions if you tell them what to ask.

Check your equipment. I’ve done enough appearances now to make a worthwhile investment in professional quality stuff—noise-cancelling headphones, a 1080-pixel camera, and two boom mics (one dynamic and one condenser). You can always use your computer’s mic and camera along with earbuds but the quality won’t be as good. Regardless, just ensure they’re operating.

My Writing & Recording Station

Check your internet signal—especially if you’re on wireless. I had an embarrassing experience last week when I was on a live webinar and my signal crashed. I had to shut down, leave my studio with its backdrop full of props, and restart in the kitchen near the router. I survived, but I went and bought a roll of coaxial cable to hardwire my feed for next time.

Secure your room. Make sure whatever place you’re speaking from is secure from unexpected interruptions that could derail your presentation. Watch this funny video of a professor being interviewed live on BBC when his little kids crash the door. (BTW, it has 54 million YouTube hits.)

Turn off your cell phone.

Sound deaden your background. This is important. No one wants to listen to an echoey or tinny talk. I’ve decorated my space with fabrics like drapes, cushions, and neckties. Yes, I admit I’m a grabologist and collect neckties. (Have about 500.) They’re excellent for acoustic control and make a great backdrop. For economy, just lay towels over hard surfaces to do the job.

My Studio

Adjust your camera angle. How many pods and webs have you watched when you stared up a person’s nostrils or had a good view of their bald spot? I’ve learned to have the camera right at eye level so it appears you’re looking right into the audience’s eyes. And I’ve got a trick to share. I work with two screens. One is my laptop on the desk surface. The other is a larger monitor higher up. I fasten my Logitec digital camera with a piece of duct tape right in the center of the upper monitor. The audience can’t see the jury-rigging and the angle is perfect, but I do sit at an angle so my good side gets exposed. (I have a multi-time broken nose with a hump on one side.)

Microphone distancing. I use adjustable boom mics with pop filters. I find the best mouth-to-mic distance is spreading your palm and fingers open and place the mic from your mouth the space that your thumb tip is to your little finger. In my case, that’s 8 inches. Also, try to place the mic close to the centerline of your mouth but not blocking the camera view too much.

Lighting. Very important and should be unnoticed. You need a balance of light impacts, and it’s a visual tool to experiment with. Kind of the Goldilocks zone where it’s not too much, and not too little, but just about right. You want your front illuminated enough to be clear but not so bright that every imperfection (zit) is highlighted. I have dimmable LED overheads with adjustable side lights as well as backlighting. Part of the pre-show test with the host is checking the lights.

Dress and grooming. When you appear on camera, think of it like a job interview. Dress and look the part for the job. Clean and well kept but not overdressed or underdressed. Cameras are finicky when it comes to patterns like checks and stripes. It’s okay to be plain, Jane.

Water and bathroom. Make sure you’re comfortable. Take a pre-show bathroom break whether you need to or not. There’s nothing worse than feeling the urge at half-time. Hydration is important and the best drink is a lukewarm glass of lemon water. Also, have lip balm ready to suppress dry mouth lip smacks.

Eating on camera. This is a big no. Don’t even have food nearby and the same goes for chewing gum. It’s terribly distracting for a viewer to see a host or guest chomping away and then—Eghads!—letting off a belch or a fart.

Rest. Make sure you’re rested and ready. Don’t pull an all-nighter and go on a podcast in the morning. A yawn, or series of yawns, is a show killer.

Be aware of your tics. We all have ‘em. Use hand gestures to accent your speech but leave your hands from touching your face. As for tic words—“uhh”, “aww”, “geeze”, “like”, and “etcetera”—just be aware and keep them minimal. I know. That’s harder than it sounds because we don’t want to sound robotic.

Cheat sheets, notes, and props. It’s handy to have talking points or reference facts handy. Anticipate what you might need and have the materials nearby. Also, ask your host in advance if they’d like some “show as well as tell”. Never surprise them by whipping out something unexpected.

Your bio. Send your host a short and current bio before the podcast. A decent headshot, too. They’ll use this to introduce you. Clearly say who you are in third person and what expertise you have for the show. Include your links on how to be found but don’t try to sell anything. That can wait till the end of the show and let your host do the selling for you.

Nerves. We’re human, right? It’s natural to be nervous before a performance. Being properly prepared, as in all of the above, goes a long way toward killing butterflies. I like to engage with the host for about 15 minutes before show time. This sets a tone and allows an equipment check as well as giving some nerve-quelling time. If you do get a bit fluttery while on camera, here’s a remedy that works and no one sees. Simply place your fist in your solar plexus and slowly press. There’s a physiological reaction that calms the nerves.

During the Show

It’s your host’s show and audience. Your appearance is not about you. You’re just adding value to the host and their audience. Keep that in mind and focus on what’s in it for them. Remember, your host allowed you to go before their audience so be humble.

Listen as much as you talk. Take cues from your host and answer the questions. Clearly and concisely. Don’t seem evasive or unclear. Audiences, as well as hosts, pick this up and it either helps or hurts delivery not to mention credibility.

Stay “on brand”. Try not to get sidetracked and ramble off the topic. If you find yourself drifting, stop. The host will recognize this and steer you back.

Be conversational. Talk like you’re speaking casually with a friend. Ignore the audience and converse with the host as if the audience wasn’t even part of the show.

If you stumble or fumble your words, just own it. Laugh it off. Correct course. Move on.

Don’t hesitate to have a notepad handy. Stop and capture an idea or a link that comes up. It adds to your authenticity.

Lean forward toward the camera when you’re speaking. Lean back when you’re not. This subtlety truly works to engage interest. If you practice it, it becomes second nature. You won’t realize you’re doing it.

Use gestures. Don’t just sit stationary and converse. Smile, nod, wink if it’s appropriate, and use hand gestures, especially when explaining or comparing. But do this in moderation and be sure it appears natural, not contrived.

Be yourself. Relax and enjoy your time. Be entertaining and deliver value. But, you don’t have to be a comedian. It’s fine to freely laugh and get others laughing, too.

Remember your host’s name (and how to pronounce it). I keep the host and podcast name on a sticky note on the monitor, and I naturally use the host’s name in conversation. Can you imagine being interviewed by Joe Rogan and mistakenly calling him Neil Young?

Don’t hesitate to mention previous work your host has accomplished. Leave a compliment and/or a reference to something your host has previously done.

Leave a takeaway at the end. Be prepared to sum up your core reason for being on the show. Depart by planting a seed in your host’s and their audience’s minds.

After the Show

Send a thank you note. Possibly a small gift, too. A little gratitude goes a long way toward being remembered, and you want to be remembered as a great interviewee.

Promote the podcast. Source the links and pitch the program on your social media sites and your mailing list. It not only boosts your host’s podcast but it increases your personal exposure.

Ask for referrals. Your host undoubtedly knows other podcasters and influencers. Don’t be afraid to ask if your host knows anyone else who’d like to have you as a guest. The worst they could say is no.

Get ready for your next podcast appearance.

*   *   *

I hear the question. How do you get leads and invites to appear on a podcast or be interviewed on a show? Well, there are lots of pitching tips on the internet. Some involve cold-calling. Some involve building rapport through networking and referrals. I don’t solicit appearances and can only speak to what’s worked for my discovery.

It’s come from my blog at I’ve been at it 10 years and have over 400 posts. I stick to my tagline Provoking Thoughts on Life, Death, and Writing, and I consistently publish new material every second Saturday morning. I’ve worked out proper backlist Search Engine Optimization (SEO) protocols, and I get randomly found by podcast hosts and film producers on their constant search for new content.

And I have somewhat of a catchy bio:

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and coroner, now turned crime writer and emerging film content producer. Garry has twenty indie publications on the market as well as being a regular podcast guest focussing on crime and forensics.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island at Canada’s west coast. You can contact him via his Twitter handle at  @GarryRodgers1 or follow his blog at

Kill Zoners – What’s your experience in being interviewed? Have you been a podcast guest? If so, how was your time? And what helpful art of being interviewed tips do you have for us?

Are you Lying or Laying Around

Are you Lying or Laying Around
Terry Odell

lie or layAnalytics from my own website/blog shows that consistently, one of the top three search terms (after my name) ended up on a basic grammar post I did a number of years ago. If that many people were searching, I thought some of our TKZ readers might find it useful. If you’ve already got a handle on the usage, enjoy the picture of the cat.

Years ago, when I was tutoring for the Adult Literacy League in Orlando, one of my students was a native Korean speaker. She’d been in the US for almost two decades, but she needed a lot of help with grammar. I relied on a book my kids had used in elementary school, Scholastic’s A+ Guide to Grammar by Vicki Tyler. I don’t think you can find it anymore, and I’m glad I kept the book. The pages are yellowing, but it’s a great quick reference, explained in easy to understand terms.

One problem my student had, and one that I still see when evaluating manuscripts, is the “Lie vs Lay” usage. So, here’s your grammar tip for today:

LIE (Not the fib-telling usage)
Means to rest or recline, and also to remain or be situated.
NEVER takes a direct object.

Means to put or place something.
Usually takes a direct object that tells what was placed

Confusion arises when you change tenses.

LIE is present tense. Past is LAY

LAY is present tense. Past is LAID.

Here are some examples in a variety of tenses which might clarify things. Or give you something to refer to.


  • If you’re tired, lie down and take a nap
  • I wonder what lies beneath the pile of clothes in my closet.
  • Your sweater is lying on the couch
  • Last summer, we lay by the pool every day after lunch
  • The envelope from my sister lay unopened for a week
  • I have lain in bed all morning


  • Lay the grocery bag on the table
  • I was laying the new hardwood floor in the dining room.
  • I laid the grocery bags on the table before I answered the phone.
  • I have laid my cards on the table.

So, in answer to the question posed in the title of this post — you’re lying around.

I don’t know if this helps. I tend to rely on the “takes an object” rule if I’m not sure. Of course, there’s always the write-around option. Use a different word!

What about you? Any grammar issues you have to stop and think about? Any you’ve noticed while reading?

Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

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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.”