Five Ways To Become A Happier Writer

By Mark Alpert

First of all, notice that the title of this post isn’t “Five Ways To Become A More Successful Writer.” There’s plenty of information already out there about how to write better books and sell more copies. I can’t add much to that topic, and I’m not the best authority on it either, because my success in this business has been modest.

No, I want to focus on happiness, not success. The two goals are often linked, but not always. There are miserable authors on the bestseller list, and there are jubilant writers who work in blissful obscurity. Which goal is more important? Well, if you’re looking for success alone, writing novels isn’t the most promising occupation. The competition is fierce and the monetary payoffs are meager. In financial terms, you’re better off investing in the stock market, even with all the current volatility.

It’s much easier for a novelist to reap emotional rewards. There’s the joy of writing a beautiful sentence, the satisfaction of creating a likable character, the sneaky elation of engineering an unexpected plot twist. And those rewards are magnified when readers recognize a novel’s virtues and share their admiration with the writer. I love getting emails from readers who’ve enjoyed my books. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.

But there are other forces in the publishing business that can spoil the party. Rejection by agents and editors always hurts. Bad reviews aren’t fun either. Worst of all, perhaps, is the massive indifference of a nationwide audience that already has too many novels to choose from and is reluctant to try new authors and new kinds of books. After a writer spends months or years perfecting his or her manuscript, it’s deeply disappointing to see it ignored.

So how can a fiction writer maximize happiness and minimize distress? I’ve come up with five useful tips:

1. Don’t let your happiness depend on things that are beyond your control. This rule applies to everyone, not just writers. I repeated it all the time to my kids when they were working on their college applications. I urged them to make their college essays as good as possible, but I also warned that there were no guarantees. Sometimes a college will reject even the best applications, for no evident reason. Let’s say you’re a straight-A student from Weehawken who can compose operas and pitch no-hitters and solve differential equations; you assume you’ll be a shoo-in at the college of your choice, right? But if that particular college has already accepted a different student from Weehawken who excels at baseball, math, and music, the school might not want to admit another. You’ve done the best you could, but the final decision is out of your control. So the smart strategy is to apply to at least a dozen colleges, increasing the chance that one or two of them will recognize and reward your talents.

The college-application game has become ridiculously competitive, but it’s a cakewalk compared with the process of winning a book contract with a major publisher. Thousands of brilliant manuscripts are rejected or ignored every day. Publishing a book in the traditional way is a worthy goal, but don’t let your happiness depend on the often arbitrary decisions of literary agents and editors. They have to consider many factors when deciding whether to represent or buy a novel, and a good number of those considerations have nothing to do with the quality of the book. (For instance, has the publisher just issued a very similar book? Is the agent already overloaded with promising clients? Is the editor about to make a job change and therefore not interested in buying anything at that moment?) Given that all these random influences are at work, it seems absurd to sulk after a rejection or pin all your hopes and dreams on your next submission. Don’t withdraw from the game; just understand that it’s a crapshoot. That way, you won’t be so disappointed when you lose, but you’ll still be just as excited when you win.

2. A writer’s happiness is not proportional to his or her number of readers. Because we live in such a competitive society, we create lots of rankings. In the publishing business, the critical measure of success is the number of books sold. Certain categories of books sell better than others; short-story collections, for example, don’t do as well as novels, on average. A traditionally published debut novel that sells only 1,000 copies would, in most cases, be considered a commercial failure. Conversely, a debut novel that sells 100,000 copies would be considered a commercial success (unless the publisher paid the author a seven-figure advance for the book, in which case it too would probably be considered a disappointment).

But what about the happiness dividends of publishing? Even a novel that sells only 1,000 copies will give its author a fair amount of pleasure. There’s the joy of seeing the novel at your local bookstore, perhaps stacked next to the masterpieces written by your literary heroes. There’s the burst of pride you’ll feel when sharing the book with friends and family. And your novel will most likely be catalogued in the Library of Congress and perhaps a few local libraries as well, giving you at least a smidgeon of literary immortality. I’ve had eight novels published so far, and though none of them was a huge commercial success, each made me very happy.

Now consider a novel that sells 100,000 copies. It will no doubt give the author more pleasure than the thousand-copy-seller, if only for financial and/or egotistical reasons. But will it provide a hundred times more happiness? I don’t think so. So why obsess over sales numbers?

3. Write about things that make you happy. Now this doesn’t mean you should limit your fiction to Christmas stories, tales of adventurous puppies, and other feel-good subjects. Stories of murder and mayhem also give pleasure to readers and writers. If you love to write about serial killers, go right ahead. If zombies or vampires are your thing, take a stab at it. It’s much better to give free rein to your fictional passions, whatever they are, than to force yourself to write about a subject you hate, no matter how commercially appealing it may be.

My latest novel, THE COMING STORM, is about an erratic U.S. president who persecutes immigrants, ignores global warming, and orders the creation of an American Gestapo. Writing this kind of novel probably wouldn’t have been fun for most writers — it hits a little too close to home — but I loved it. During the months when I was working on the book, my wife would sometimes spot the secret smile on my face and interrogate me: “Why are you smiling? Did you kill off one of the characters in your novel today? Someone in the White House?”

4. Figure out how important writing is to your happiness, and adjust your life accordingly. There are many gradations of pleasure. For example, I love skiing, but only in small doses. Skiing once every winter is enough for me. I enjoy cycling once or twice a week, but doing it more often would get boring. And then there are the pleasures I would enjoy every day, if I could: dark chocolate, good coffee, sex, listening to music, hanging out with friends. Some authors feel the same way about writing fiction — they can’t miss a day of it — but for me, the passion waxes and wanes. I write one novel each year; if I tried to write two books a year, I’d probably be miserable. I need some downtime between books. Each year, I spend six or seven months hammering out a novel, and during the rest of the year I do freelance journalism, participate in a video-art festival, and toss around ideas for the next book.

That’s the writing schedule that makes me happiest. What works for you?

5. When good things happen in your writing career, celebrate like crazy. I love throwing launch parties for my novels. I invite all my friends to an independent bookstore in Manhattan and arrange a FreshDirect delivery of beer and wine and party platters. I chat with everyone, I do a reading, I sign books. It’s a ton of fun.

Some authors stage a celebratory ritual when they finish a manuscript. (Remember that scene in Stephen King’s Misery?) Others party hard at writers’ conferences. The publishing world can be stingy about doling out rewards, but that shouldn’t stop us from rewarding ourselves.

Speaking of parties, this week I’ll celebrate the publication of THE COMING STORM. The novel has already received some great reviews, and I’m scheduled to do a radio interview to promote the book on Tuesday. You can learn more about THE COMING STORM at my website, and the buy links for the book are here. I hope it makes you happy!


Tips on Writing a Domestic Thriller

Jordan Dane


image purchased for use by Jordan Dane

Domestic/psychological thrillers have found greater traction since Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL & THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins. James Scott Bell’s YOUR SON IS ALIVE is a great example of a domestic thriller. Laura Benedict’s upcoming book THE STRANGER INSIDE is a novel I can’t wait to read. I’ve pre-ordered it and you can too. Release is coming Feb 5, 2019.

These books remind us that readers are drawn to “reading what they know” but with a twist. The domestic thriller brings terror into the home/life of an average family or allows readers to see what might be held secret behind a family’s locked doors.

This seems like the ultimate terror, to set a story inside anyone’s house, but it can keep your writing sharp and focused on tough subject matter. Maybe your story will hit too close to home, making it a challenge to write.

Keys Factors for Writing Domestic/Psychological Thrillers

1.) Set your domestic thriller in familiar settings. Give the reader comfort until they realize your novel doesn’t take place in Mayberry. Set your story in a small town, on a commuter train, in a home with a family who could live next door to you, or create a situation that seems harmless at first until it escalates into a terrifying tale. Much like Stephen King is partial to turning everyday objects into nightmares–I’ll never use a turkey carving knife again–it’s important to think through an effective setting that lulls the reader into a false sense of security until you pull the rug out.

2.) Make your story hinge on familiar subjects. I’ve suggested a few below, but I’m sure you could come up with more that could be turned on its ear with escalating tension. Use your own personal experiences to discover what might touch your readers.

  • A marriage that doesn’t need much to send it over a cliff
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Neighbors from Satan
  • A clandestine love affair
  • School rivalry/Helicopter moms competing against each other
  • Parenting – Lots of possibilities
  • Family relationships
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends/Jealousy

3.) Now ask yourself the critical question of “what if…” What are the worst plot twists that could happen in the world you’ve created? Think WAY out of the box. Use a dartboard to add some unpredictability to your brainstorming.

4.) Make your character(s) real. Imagine people you have known, but elevate them into a major player’s role in your story. It helps to start with the familiar to make it real, but then your character would take on his/her own journey. Remember, your characters need to be real and not supersized into movie star status. Take “every man or every woman” and force them to step into an horrendous plot. Make your starring character(s) believable.

5.) Give your characters flaws that could prove to be fatal. It’s a balancing act to pick vulnerability that doesn’t make them appear too weak. Give them insecurities they can overcome in a believable way, without making them whiners. Force them to face their insecurities. Are they capable of overcoming their worst fears? Give them a chance to do it. Will they? Dig deep with a journey for your character to survive through your plot. They must struggle to gain ground or appear that they never will. Nothing trite will work here. It must seem insurmountable. I found a great resource for character flaws – 123 Ideas for Character Flaws

6.) Unreliable narrators are gold in this genre. What if your main character doesn’t know what going on? Use it. Are they so paranoid that their very nature can’t be trusted? Great plot twists can abound with the use of unreliable narrators or unreliable secondary characters. Once the readers starts to question what’s going on, you have them hooked deeper.

7.) Bend those plot twists. In order to play with the minds of your characters, you must get into their heads and mangle their reality. It’s not easy to write and set up a major plot twist, so plan ahead and let your imagination soar. Sometimes you will know the plot twist that will come at the end – the big finale twist. Other times you can filter unexpected plot twists through the novel at key intervals to escalate the stakes & create key turning points that take the plot in different directions.

8.) Don’t be afraid to SCARE your readers. Make their skin crawl with the anticipation of something bad about to happen. Titillate them with the build up and add twists to keep the tension going. What would scare you? Picture times you might have told ghost stories around a campfire and what made you jump. That adrenaline rush is what you want to give your readers. I often like to walk the edge of the horror genre, but these days, books are written with multiple genres to tell a good story. Don’t be afraid to add elements of horror or mystery to your suspense thriller.


1.) Share your current writing projects & genre. What has got you excited in 2019?

2.) Have you read a good domestic thriller lately? Please share the novel and the author.


Networking For Writers

By John Gilstrap

Like any other business, this publishing game is built in part on personal relationships. Want to rise to the top of an agent’s slush pile?  Want to get a blurb from a big-name author? Want to know how to deal with the frustrations of cover designs, finding an editor, or fleshing out the technical details of your plot?  All of these challenges and just about everything else you want to know or do can be flushed out through networking.  That’s what I want to talk about in the paragraphs ahead.

In no particular order of importance:

Followers, Friends, Likes and Contacts don’t count. There’s a widespread presumption “out there” that the way to start a writing career is to build an enormous social media platform.  I see the logic when it comes to nonfiction expertise, but when it comes to fiction, it makes no sense to me to concentrate on finding customers for a product that doesn’t yet exist.  Yes, I suppose a well-done blog about one’s writing process could be interesting to other writers, but here’s the sad truth: Writers don’t buy books. I’ve overstated that, of course, but in large measure I think it’s true when it comes to writers’ blogs.  I’m not being bitter here at all, but we get statistics every week on how many people visit TKZ every day, and trust me: If all those people bought all our books, we’d all be driving better cars.

Now, think of the number of writing-related groups and blogs you subscribe to through Facebook and LinkedIn and all the other social media platforms.  I get that those are the safe spaces that make you comfortable, and give you an opportunity to actively participate in conversations, but if you’re writing, say, about police procedures, might your time and efforts be better spent on groups and blogs that talk about those things?

I don’t think it’s insignificant that the social media push is largely driven by people who make money by helping people build their social media platform. I mean, think about it: Authors are brands and books are products. Would you be more inclined to buy a Chevy over a Toyota because the president of Chevrolet posted a picture of his breakfast?

Step out of the virtual world into the real one. Given that you’re currently reading a blog about writing, I feel a little awkward telling you to push away from the computer and stop reading blogs about writing. None of us are truly who we pretend to be in public forums like this. Many of us try to be genuine–I know that I do–but my armor is always up in an online interaction.  My inner-cynic won’t let me get but so close in a cyber-relationship, and I expect the same level of cynicism from others. I would never dream of asking advice or asking a favor from someone I have not met in person.

Go to where the experts are.  It’s no secret to TKZ regulars that I’m what you might call a gun guy.  I like firearms and I know a lot about them. I also know that there are people who know far more than I do, and that a large percentage of those people will gather in Las Vegas at the end of January for the annual SHOT Show, which is to weapons systems what the Detroit Auto Show is to automobiles. I need to be there.

My first SHOT Show was in 2012, and it was there that I met a guy who is a world renown expert in martial arts and edged weapons. We bonded and became friends. Through him, I’ve met a number of Special Forces operators, and through them some FBI special weapons experts.  I try not to bother them too much, but they always take my phone calls and answer tough questions.  They trust me never to write things that I shouldn’t and I pay them every year with an acknowledgement and a free book. Most of these guys have become good friends.

But you don’t have to go to Vegas.  Want to know about how cops interact with each other? Start with a community ride-along program and chat up the officer who’s driving you around.  Listen not just to the words, but to the attitude.  Ask that cop if he can introduce you to other cops–say, a homicide investigator–so that you can ask a few questions.  I think you’ll be surprised by the results.

BTW, for police-related immersion learning, you cannot beat Writer’s Police Academy.  Lee Lofland puts on one hell of a 4-day show every year. His blog, The Graveyard Shift, is informative, too.

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.

So, what do you think?  What have I missed? Where am I entirely off base?


Does Your Cover Need
a New Year’s Makeover?

“A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story.” — Chip Kidd, Random House cover designer

By PJ Parrish

Welcome back, crime dogs. It’s the new year! Out with the old, in with the new!

So today, as you think about how you might want to improve yourself this year — botox? go blond? organize the sock drawer? — maybe you should take a moment to re-look your book branding.

Oh dear…Just hours into 2019 and I’ve lost some of you already. Branding…ugh. I can barely think about what’s going on in chapter 12 let alone worry about how I am going to make splash (or even a ripple) in the ocean of books that will be published this year.  Let’s get the bad news out of the way first:

That chart shows the number of self-published books from 2008 through just 2017. I know, I know. Discouraging. So how do you increase your chances of getting noticed and maybe even making a few shekels? Let’s restate the obvious:

  1. Be a bestselling writer already
  2. Get a James Patterson co-author gig
  3. Get lucky.
  4. Write a really good book
  5. Do everything in your power to give it a good launch.

The only two you have any control over are 4 and 5. So let’s start there. Let’s also not go into promotion and marketing right now because that hydra-headed monster is too much for me to handle here. And besides, it depresses the hell out of me, and my only new year’s resolution this year is to try to focus on positive stuff because the negative stuff will find me at every turn.

Let’s talk, instead, about one of my favorite subjects — great covers. This is foremost in my writer brain in this new year because my sister Kelly and I are hard at work getting our back list titles ready to post. Our oldest came out 18 years ago (geez…) so, it’s time for a make-over. Besides, when you get your rights back and want to reissue your books, you legally can’t use the same covers your old publisher did. Which, as many of you poor souls know, can turn out to be a good thing.  More on that later…

How important are  covers? Industry folks believe a cover is the single most important thing in determining a book’s initial chance for success. A great cover makes a book stand out and thus easier to sell. For you the author, it is your only chance at a first impression. It’s like your own face, capable of conveying emotion, inner feelings, mood — what’s inside!

So, how do you make a great first impression?

If you are traditionally published, you have little or no control over this. Publishers have teams of marketing folks and artistic types that agonize over this (or in some sad cases, don’t). I’ve worked with Big Six publishers, small presses, Amazon’s mystery imprint Thomas & Mercer, plus many international imprints. In 30-plus years publishing romance, mysteries and thrillers, I’ve had some terrific covers and some howling dogs.

(See image at left…arf! arf!) My involvement in the cover process has ranged from no input, cover consultation written in my contract, and being asked to fill out an extensive questionaire about what I thought my cover should convey (by Thomas & Mercer, who also asked us to send photos we liked and allowed us to chose between two final covers).

But what about those of you who are self-publishing? That’s why I am writing this today, because, as I said, I am now a publisher myself and Kelly and I have been agonizing over this.

Here are some qualities of good covers, suggested by the site Trending/Packaging, with a few comments from me in red italics.

  • It needs a good title/ subtitle. Which is why I rail so often in my First Page critiques about innocuous or trite titles.
  • It must draw the potential reader’s attention towards the book. Like a great billboard does as you sped by in your car.
  • It should communicate with the reader on an emotional level. So important! Generic doesn’t cut it.
  • It must be unique. All books are different from each other, similarly, every book cover should also be unique to make it different from other covers. Easier said than done.
  • It should look professional. Well, duh. But just go look at some of the free offerings on Amazon to see how many fail at this. Or this site, subtitled Just Because You CAN Design Your Own Cover Doesn’t Mean You Should. 
  • It should clearly give an idea of the category of the book whether it is a horror story or a love story etc. What is your tone? Dark, lighthearted, noir, romantic?
  • It should communicate the message about the quality of the book. There is a huge difference between the covers of different qualities of books. Again, click here for what not to do. 
  • It should tell the reader what your genre or sub-genre is — fiction, non-fiction, biography, romance, thriller, etc. Readers want to know what kind of story they are getting and don’t like to be confused.

To be sure, publishers tend to be lemming-like when it comes to cover design. Hey, if basic black worked for Gone Girl, why not all its sisters? Liane Moriarity’s Little Big Lies unleashed an explosion of lollipop covers. And this trend seems evergreen — the imperiled girl/woman in the red coat:

As this is a favorite theme among man books — the shadowy guy with the gun.

Please note I show these not as any reflection of the quality of the books. I know many of these folks and they are talented all. I have read many of these books. I’d guess few of these writers get heavily involved in their cover design. Just showing that publishers themselves tend to run in packs. (Oh…I will send a free book to the first person who can tell me why the Lee Child book is somewhat out of place here).

Speaking of trends, a while back, I wrote a post about what was hot in cover design in 2018. Click here to see examples but to sum up:

  • Bold typography
  • Minimalist covers
  • Hand-drawn covers
  • Seventies and eighties designs
  • Millennial Pink
  • Collages
  • Authentic photography
  • Upscale finishes

I think we can all breath a sigh of relief that “millennial pink” is probably passe by now. The others, I believe, still stand. I see them holding true every time I pass through a bookstore or browse Amazon. But I don’t think we crime dogs should get too hung up on this.  What I think we should pay attention to is:

  • Professionalism
  • Consistency of brand
  • Messaging

Professsionalism means you can’t get away with a lousy, cheap-looking cover. Because it yells in neon to a potential reader “I am an amateur!” This applies especially if you are just starting out. Like they used to tell us in “women’s magazines” — dress for the job you want, not the one you have. Don’t design your own cover unless you have solid graphic background and even then — GET INPUT! Would you edit your own story? No…you get beta-readers, you hire copy editors. (If you do edit your own books, you’re a fool). You might have to hire a pro to do this. There are lots of good ones out there. Please don’t skimp on this. Please.

Consistency of Brand means your books have to look alike. I don’t mean literally, but they have to all be of a kind so potential readers can immediately sense a unified brand.  All good authors do this. And periodically, they go back in and re-design their older books en masse to give them face lifts. Time for an object lesson….

My friend Neil Plakcy (a member of my old critique group) has been publishing his Golden Retriever mystery series for about ten years now. His books are a lot of fun (the dog helps solve the crime), light in tone, but also deal with some serious issues. (his hero did prison time for computer crimes.) Recently, Neil decided he needed a make-over.  The first line is before, the second line is after. Click to see enlarged.

What was wrong with the first ones? Inconsistency in type-faces. Type too small. The main important image (the dog!) was usually too small and static (the dog is just sitting or standing around mainly). No one compelling image for the eye to focus on. The pictures didn’t capture the books’ playful tone. Dull colors. And hard to find Neil’s name!

What is right with the second ones? The type is consistent and DOG is set bigger and in contrasting color to drive home the content in a glance. The subtitle “A Golden Retriever Mystery” is always the same size and in the same place. Neil’s name is consistent and authoritative. There is negative space for blurbs. And the dogs are so cute they make you want to adopt them. These covers look designed, not slapped together.

Disclaimer time: My sister Kelly designed the new covers. She does this as a side business and this is not an infomercial to get her work because I don’t want her attention on anything else but our stuff for now. But she and I also are redesigning our own back list covers.  And, I gotta tell you, it’s not been easy. 

Our departure point was our newest book, THE DAMAGE DONE. It has a very distinctive cover. And we decided we wanted all our previous books — which had been published by three different companies —  to be “branded” with the same look.

I was always impressed with the covers of Stephanie Meyers Twilight series. Stark black backgrounds each with one strong image and interesting type. They were beautiful, simple, revolutionary at the time and still copied to this day.  I suspect they were in my back-brain when we started redesigning our old books. These books were about vampires yet the covers had a dark elegance. The tone was spot-on.

Our first decision was tone. Our Louis Kincaid books are PI/police procedurals, rather dark in tone. We didn’t want to look too “thriller” with screaming type. We wanted each book to have a person on it because we think readers relate to books with human beings rather than say, a static photo of the Capital building or a rundown farmhouse. This is just our taste. Yours is different, so you must figure out what TYPE OF GRAPHIC IMAGE best conveys your story. We decided to go with black backgrounds and red title type. I studied advertising design in college and red and yellow on dark background is the most eye-grabbing combo. Red conveys power and immediacy. (Blue conveys trust; orange is hip and fun; purple signals prestige and elegance). Black is a powerful neutral but adds drama when paired with the right contrasting color. I think this is why Katherine Hepburn liked to wear red scarves and Nancy Reagan wore red. (She was barely 5-foot-4 and claimed it made her feel more powerful. I get that…)

Second, we had to find the right images. I can’t count the hours Kelly and I paged through the stock photo sites looking — praying — to find that one great photograph. And we paid for them — ranging from a splurge of $375 for a Getty Image photo to $35-$70 from such sites as iStock, Stutterstock, Deposit Photo, Dreamstime. All these latter are very reasonable with clear licensing guidelines. You get what you pay for. Invest wisely.

Big caveat: You have to look beyond the original photo sometimes. Sometimes, a creative cropping can make it more powerful. Or you play around with it, lightening, darkening etc. This is why you need design help because a successful cover is often made in tweaking the details.  Here’s an example: We are also putting out a collection of our short stories. Here is the photo we bought for the cover. Pretty cool looking dame, huh? Just as is, it could have worked. But…

But we wanted an off-kilter, more mysterious feel and needed some negative space for type. And sometimes, a glimpse of stocking (or a woman’s face) can be much more shocking. So here is what we did with it:


We continued our lady’s face around the spine and onto the back for effect. Here’s the final full cover, spine and back art.

If you work with a good designer, you and she can tweak things until you get what you want.

Third, we were very particular about the type we wanted. Like colors, typefaces have their own psychological effect. Look at the different moods you can create just from basic Word software:

I love typefaces. But I fell really hard for Luca Pacioli Rough.  It was used in the credits for House of Cards. It’s elegant but edgy. (which is what we were going for overall). Kelly found it and downloaded it free. (Some fonts are restricted, however).

Okay, time for another object lesson.  On the top row are some of our books as they were put out by the original publishers years ago. The bottom row are our new designs, all made to meet our three criteria of professionalism, consistency of brand and messaging. Click to enlarge.

All the new covers are consistent in tone. They all use one strong graphic element and same fonts. Notice, in particular, THE KILLING SONG. This is one of our stand alones and we always thought the original cover was weak. Yes, the letters are bold and there’s some dripping blood on what looks like a weathered farm house or something. But the story takes place mainly in Paris and is about a sophisticated cellist who just happened to have a habit of killing woman and leaving bizarre musical clues. The original cover missed the mark on tone and on conveying anything about setting or story. Music was the main point. Somebody at our publishing house had a tin ear.

If you’ll bear with me, let me give you one more example from our own collection. Call it the Evolution of a Cover.  Our tenth Louis Kincaid book was called The Little Death.

At left is the original cover: I defy you to tell me what it is about or where it takes place. It appears that some kind of plant is burning, but what does that mean? What the heck is this book about? Well, the story takes place in Palm Beach society. It is about a clique of rich women who take young male lovers then things go wrong and they must “dispose” of them. The title is a French idiom, “La Petite Mort,” for orgasm.  Our French publisher came a lot closer to getting the point. All his covers for our books were well-branded, featuring the same typefaces, and one strong graphic image against black backgrounds. In this case, it was an orchid — which is a major clue in the book and the means by which Louis finally cracks the case. It also looks sort of sexy. 

At left, is what we have come up with so far. We are still working on this cover — it was really hard to find the right image — but here is what we started with. We are tweaking this image, however, because we think it is a little too, forgive the pun, in your face. We might take out the dripping blood. We might go with something else entirely. But at least it won’t be a burning bush…

Whew…boy, did I run at the mouth today. Must have been holding all this in during the holiday hiatus. Anywho, that’s it for Cover Art 101 today. I could rail on this subject for hours. But I’d rather hear what you all think — as readers and writers.  What turns you on, what turns you off? Can you truly judge a book by its cover?



Crime Writer’s Version of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,

Not a corpse was breathing, not even their spouse;

Nylon stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that the cops would not find them there;

The live victims were all nestled, snug in their restraints;

While visions of mayhem snuffed out their complaints;

My ol’ man in his bandana, and I in my cap

Had just settled in for a quick nightly nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew with a dash,

Tore open the curtains and hid the drug stash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,

Gave a luster of midday to a figure below.

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a swirling lit cruiser pulling eight plastic reindeer,

With a rickety old driver so slow and not quick,

I knew in a moment he’d never catch Nick.

He slogged through the snow, toward our doorway he came,

And he whistled and shouted and called us strange names:

“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blixen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As leaves that blew before the storm hit,

When he met with an obstacle, our pit bull named Kit;

So up to the housetop the cop climbed the lattice,

With no warrant or recourse, as if he had gratis,

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing like he was dancing in hoofs.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney the cop came with a thundering bound.

He was dressed all in blue, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all singed with ashes and soot;

A bundle of pot brownies he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a junkie just opening his sack.

His eyes–how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a berry!

His droll little mouth snarled up with a grin,

And the squint to one eye like he’d drank all our gin;

The stump of a cigar he held tight in buck teeth,

And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath.

He had a broad face and not much of a belly

That barely moved when he laughed, like a jar with no jelly.

He was cheerful with glee, a right jolly old cop,

And I laughed when I saw him; he looked like Nick’s pop;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And stole all the nylons, then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, into the fire he dove.

I sprang forward to save him, then stopped, reconsidered,

How much would they pay for a cop’s body, delivered?

But I heard Nick exclaim, ere he drove out the lot,

“You’ll get us both busted and rightfully caught.”

“Quiet,” I told him, but one moment too late.

For he’d vanished; so much for that date.

Back in bed I climbed, the mattress now ample,

And sprinkled the pillows with the remaining drug sample.

When I drew my last breath before my eyelids did flutter,

I mumbled, “Merry Christmas to all. May your nights make you shudder.”



Searching for a special gift for the hard-to-please person on your list?

Send them on a thrilling adventure!




To order signed paperbacks, email me at or message me on Facebook.

Blowout 99c Kindle sale (all titles — ends tomorrow)

MARRED, Book 1, Grafton County Series

WINGS OF MAYHEM, Book 1, Mayhem Series
SILENT MAYHEM releases early 2019!

*All books can stand alone.



Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season! May all your writing dreams come true in 2019.



Turn Browsers Into Buyers

by James Scott Bell

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat.
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.
And if you are promoting, I’m sure it’s no offense
If you sell the man some Kindle books for 99¢.

Yes, ’tis the season for self-indulgent poetry, and a couple of announcements.

The first is that my fourth Mike Romeo thriller, Romeo’s Fight, is set to release on January 7th. It’s available for preorder for the special launch price of $2.99. In February it will go up to $3.99. Naturally I would appreciate it if you would hop over to Amazon and reserve your copy. On launch day you’ll get it automatically delivered to your Kindle.

Click here to preorder.

(You international readers can find it in your Amazon store by pasting this ASIN number into the search box: B07L9DLGVF)

Welcome back!

Romeo’s Fight, like all the Romeo thrillers, can be read on its own. But if you’re one of those who likes to read a series in order, I’ve got some good news: for the next two weeks the first three Romeos are all priced at 99¢. Now’s the time to hop on this International Thriller Writers Award winning train. The order is:

1. Romeo’s Rules
2. Romeo’s Way
3. Romeo’s Hammer

Romeo’s Fight opens this way:

“So you’re Mike Romeo,” the guy said. “You don’t look so tough.”

I was sitting poolside at the home of Mr. Zane Donahue, drinking a Corona, and wearing a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, flip-flops and sunglasses. I was the perfect embodiment of L.A. mellow, trying to enjoy a pleasant afternoon. Now this shirtless, tatted-up billboard was planted in front of me, clenching and unclenching his fists.

“I’m really quite personable once you get to know me,” I said.

“I don’t think you’re tough,” he said.

“I can recite Emily Dickinson,” I said. “Can you?”

He squinted. Or maybe that’s how his eyes were naturally. His reddish hair was frizzy. With a little care and coloring, it would have made a nice clown ’do. He had a flat nose, one that had been beaten on pretty good somewhere. In a boxing ring, the cage, or prison.

“Who?” he said.

“You don’t know Emily Dickinson?”

Blank stare.

“Then you’re not so tough yourself,” I said.

I took a sip of my brew and focused on the devil tat above his left nipple. Underneath were the words DIE SCUM.

So let’s talk a bit about marketing, specifically two items: the browsing sequence and the building of buzz.

We start with the old-school bookstore browser. She walks into Barnes & Noble, perhaps with a title in mind, but takes a moment to look at the New Release table. What is the first thing that attracts her attention? The cover. If the cover has the name of an author she’s read before, and likes, that book gets picked up first. Otherwise, she might check out a book by someone she doesn’t know simply because of the cover design.

(This is exactly how I discovered Harlan Coben. I vividly remember going into Crown Books and looking at the New Release table, and one cover just jumped out and grabbed my shirt and said, “Open me!” It was the cover of Tell No One, and it was stunning, not just because of the color and title font, but also because Harlan’s name could not be seen. This counter-intuitive distinction set it apart from every other cover on that table.)

So what next? She will look at the dust jacket copy. Does that copy sizzle? Make the plot irresistible? If so, the next place she’ll turn is to the opening page. And of course we know what that has to do. Just check out our First Page Critique archives.

If she likes what she reads, our browser will look at the price. $28? Yikes! Ah, but B&N is offering it at a 30% new release discount. That might just be enough to close the sale.

It’s roughly the same with online browsing. Cover, book description, the “Look Inside” feature to sample the first pages, and the price. Understand that sequence as you plan your marketing.

So what about the second consideration, building buzz? The two primary venues for this are social media and the email list. The one overarching consideration is: Don’t annoy.

You annoy by only talking about your book and how great it is going to be. If all we see on social media is variations on “buy my book!” it’s not buzz, but “buzz off” we’re going to create.

My rule of thumb on social media is 90/10. Ninety percent of the time be, gasp, social, providing good content so people are glad to have you around. Then when a book comes out or you have other such news, you have the trust and toleration of your followers.

Everyone knows and touts the essentiality of the fan email list. It takes years to build a substantial list, which you do by a) writing great books; b) having a systematic way for readers to sign up; and c) making the actual content of your communication a pleasure to read.

So what do you do if you are just starting out and have no fan base? If you’re traditionally published, work in concert with your publisher and come up with a plan. While there are still physical bookstores around, introduce yourself locally and set up a book signing. Your publisher might be able to arrange a regional tour (travel expenses on you). Are book signings worth it? All pro authors can tell you stories about book signings gone awry (see this post from TKZ emeritus Joe Moore), but when you’re a newbie, you pay your dues.

For both traditional and self-publishing writers: send personalized emails to everyone you know, politely requesting they take a shot on your book and, if so moved, a) leave a review on Amazon; b) tell their friends about it; and c) sign up for your email list which, you assure them, won’t be spammy or too frequent. (My rule of thumb here is once-a-month, give or take.)

We all know how hard it is to get a message through amidst the din and dither of the madding crowd. Just remember to keep the main thing the main thing: write excellent books. That’s the only ironclad, long-tail secret to a career. Buzz and marketing help get you an introduction. They can turn browsers into buyers. But it’s your books that turn buyers into fans.

This is my last post of 2018. To my blogmates and all our marvelous TKZ readers: Merry Christmas and a Carpe Typem New Year!


The Organ Recital

Photo courtesy of Sydney Rae,

Where did the year(s) go? Is there a way to slow things down, before one reaches the age of the organ recital? What is that, you ask?

A friend of mine who is a bit ahead of me agewise has a weekly meeting with an ever-dwindling group of his friends from high school. My pal recently referred to one of these gatherings as “the organ recital.” I asked him what he meant, and he said, “Y’know, this guy talks about his liver problems. That one is talking about starting renal dialysis in two weeks. We’re going to have to change our meeting day. I’ve had two heart attacks, and my pancreas won’t survive another Christmas of Reese’s Trees and Giant Eagle Egg Nog ice cream. The bags of all-season cheese curls probably don’t help either. We all try to one-up each other about how sick we are, whose organ will go first and which one it will be.”

I’ve noticed this practice among my own circle of friends of a certain age. Their daily routines seem to be intervals between trips to this specialist or that specialist. I don’t engage in this because I don’t go to the doctor. It’s not an act of denial. I know what’s coming.  I just don’t care to know which of my bodily parts might be planning a suicidal onslaught against me or if they’re going to collaborate on some sort of kamikaze run at an inopportune time, like when I’m attempting to navigate the silly-string pattern of I-65 through downtown Nashville, when they’ll say, “Let’s cut the strings on this puppet right NOW!”  Oh, sure, I wake up at 3 AM and wonder momentarily if that sudden, tear-inducing pain in my side is a tumor the size of Milwaukee, boldly shouldering aside everything in its ever-increasing path, or if that twinge of chest pain is a signal to the conductor that, thanks to regular patronage of Arby’s and Sonic, that left anterior descending artery is blocked up and the remaining available tracks can’t handle the freight. They all go away, however, and everything still seems to work okay, so I forget about them until the next minor complaint arises. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

Young folks don’t think about this, but they normally don’t have friends who have died suddenly in their sleep, or after a series of hospital stays, or while unable to recognize loved ones or even themselves as they spend their final days in an institution which has come to be known, ironically enough, as a memory facility. When you are in your thirties, such things seem miles away, over the river and through the woods, something that happens to others, to old people. They don’t realize how fast time passes. That distant toll of the bell all too soon becomes up close and personal.

2018 wasn’t been one of my better years, but there have been worse, much worse. The worst of them were the worst of them due by and large to self-inflicted damage and will hopefully never be repeated, thanks to acquired wisdom and accumulated guile. 2018 was sadly memorable for watching a number of folks I have loved to varying degrees lay down their swords and shields and pass ahead to the next stage. I am fortunate at the moment, however, to be more Harry than Tonto, more weekend than Bernie. There is still much for which to look forward. My children continue to surprise me in good and great ways, and my granddaughter promises much and delivers more. On the cultural side, there is a new James Lee Burke novel — The New Iberia Blues — and a new season of Luther coming. The new year also has the promise of some new horizons to see before any final sunset, if good fortune prevails. Hoping for the best while preparing for the worst seems to cover all of the bases. Until that moment when it doesn’t, of course.

While I have the chance let me tell you that I am so thankful for each and every one of you that I can’t adequately express it.  Thanks for stopping by, reading, commenting, and being a friend to everyone at TKZ. You are the reason why we show up. And please: keep writing, writing, and writing until the tip of that spear you call your story is as sharp as you can get it. That friend I mentioned at the beginning of this piece is fond of saying (in another context) that a used key stays shiny. Keep using your talents and shining them up until they are so bright that they cannot be ignored.

Thank you. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you in 2019.