Mystery Publishing News – Recent Shakeups

Adrian Midgley captures “Pekoe” defying gravity to catch that $&#% dot.


An author in search of a publisher often feels like a cat trying to catch a laser pointer. The target moves up the wall, down the stairs, sideways, backwards, and spins you around in circles. Even when you’re lucky enough to catch one (either a laser dot or a publisher), it can vanish without warning.

What’s a cat—or an author—supposed to do to keep up to speed?

In a constantly changing market, below are several recent developments affecting mystery presses:

Midnight Ink – The October, 2018 announcement that Midnight Ink would shut down came as a big shock to authors and employees alike. The respected crime fiction imprint was established in 2005. According to a Publisher’s Weekly article in November, 2018, the Minnesota-based publisher Llewellyn withdrew from the fiction market to concentrate on nonfiction, leaving MI out in the cold.

Spokesperson Kat Sanborn said:

“We had good reviews, but the sales just weren’t there for [Midnight Ink],” Sanborn said, noting that the 250 backlist titles will remain in print, and that frontlist will be marketed and promoted as usual. “We’re just not accepting new manuscripts,” she said.

Twenty titles that were already in progress will be rolled out during spring/summer 2019.

Three MI editors were laid off, including Terri Bischoff, who didn’t stay unemployed for long, landing on her feet with a new gig at Crooked Lane Books. She is now Senior Editor at CLB, a crime fiction publisher founded in 2014.

Several orphaned MI authors have found new homes at Crooked Lane, Severn River Publishing, and Seventh Street Books.


Seventh Street Books – SSB is undergoing changes as well with a new owner. Formerly owned by Prometheus Books, in November, 2018 SSB was bought by Start Publishing. Dan Mayer remains as Editorial Director.

Publisher’s Weekly reported:

“Prometheus Books sold its two genre imprints to Start Publishing. Publisher Jonathan Kurtz explained the sale by saying he wanted to return the publisher to its nonfiction roots. Prometheus expanded into fiction in 2005 with the launch of Pyr, which focuses on science fiction and fantasy novels. In 2011, it added the crime fiction imprint Seventh Street Books. Pyr has a backlist of 170 titles, and Seventh Street’s backlist stands at about 90.”


Poisoned Pen PressIn December, 2018, Publisher’s Weekly announced the acquisition of PP by Sourcebooks:

“Sourcebooks has announced that it has acquired most of the assets of Poisoned Pen Press and that the award-winning crime and mystery publisher will become Sourcebooks’ mystery imprint.”

The staff, including PP’s founder Robert Rosenwald and Editor-in-Chief Barbara Peters, will reportedly stay on and become Sourcebook employees. The offices remain in Scottsdale, AZ.


Kindle Press – The Amazon imprint stopped accepting new submissions in spring of 2018, leaving me and a hundred or so other authors orphaned.


I’ve been looking for a new house since then and have received offers from several well-known publishers like Fly-By-Night Press and No-Advances-R-Us, LLC.

Which raises the question: how does an author find a reputable house that’s likely to be in business for longer than it takes the ink to dry on the contract?

The answer is research. Vetting publishers sounds daunting but here are three shortcuts:

#1  Mystery Writers of America – MWA regularly updates their list of approved publishers. To be included on that list, a press must adhere to “professional standards of good business practice and fair treatment of authors.”

Here’s a partial list of qualifications:

  • Must be in business for at least two years;
  • Must have paid a minimum of $1000 within the past two years to at least five authors who are not owners of the company;
  • Must have published at least two works of crime-related fiction or nonfiction in the past two years;
  • Must meet other standards outlined in MWA’s Approved Publishers Guidelines.

#2  Writer Beware – a great watchdog website that alerts writers to scams, cons, questionable business practices, and outright fraud. Although affiliated with Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), their investigations and warnings cover all genres. Writer Beware is the first place I research a publisher.

#3  Ask other authors – Gone are the days when an author stayed with the same house for his/her entire career. In the past couple of years, Big Five houses decided to focus on blockbusters, pretty much to the exclusion of mid-list authors. As a result, many popular authors were dropped even though they had successful series.

Fellow writers/orphans are often willing to share their war stories about publishers.

Some authors have gone on to work with smaller presses. I know a few who now have contracts with several different houses at the same time.

Others decided to indie-publish or go hybrid.

The Authors Guild features a Back-in-Print program for previously published books where the author has gotten the rights back. For a fee, AG will assist in converting to new formatting for re-release as ebooks and/or print on demand (POD) hard copies. They also help with distribution.

When a publisher makes you an offer, the legal department of the Authors Guild will review and analyze the publishing contract. That single service makes their $125 membership fee worthwhile. Fly-By-Night and No-Advances-R-Us offered me contracts which I sent to AG’s attorneys. They helped me make the informed decision to say, “Thanks but no thanks.”

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go chase that little red dot that just flickered across the ceiling . . . . . . . .


TKZers, do you have a favorite news source that keeps you up to date on the publishing industry?



Even though Debbie Burke is an orphan, her thriller Instrument of the Devil is still available here.


Citizen’s Police Academy

My local police department runs an annual citizen’s academy designed to provide insight into the operation of local law enforcement and (I suspect) as a way of counteracting some of the many misconceptions that abound about the police. This year, despite the fact that I don’t write contemporary mysteries or police procedurals, I decided to enroll – figuring, hey you just never know (research is research after all, and inspiration can strike anywhere, anytime!). This free program is 12 weeks long (yes, you read that correctly!) and for three hours each week we learn about the whole range of operations: from patrol procedures, evidence/crime lab and computer forensics, investigations, 911 center operations, to the K9 unit, traffic and the local jail. We also get CPR certification as well as a firearms training (which should be interesting given how gun-averse I am!) and a chance to do a ride-along as well as a 911 ‘sit-along’.

Last week we had our session with one of the current patrol team leaders and it was already an eye opener for me – both in terms of the the range of calls they handle and the amount of equipment they have on hand to deal with these. All the patrol officers in our local police department undertake their own (non-felony) investigations and have facial recognition software as well as fingerprinting and DNA kits in their patrol cars. They also all carry drug testing equipment as well as Narcan (which is a sad reflection of the opioid crisis in America today). Even in our relatively safe community they have to be prepared to respond to active shooter calls and SWAT team situations. It sounded to me like one of the greatest challenge for a patrol officer today is handling the stress/mental health challenges of dealing with such a wide range of calls – one minute you could be dealing with a teenage suicide, the next a coyote attack, then a routine traffic stop, followed by a stolen vehicle report, a drug overdose, and then a call like the Aurora theater shooting. Another key takeaway (for me) was that law enforcement is nothing like it’s depicted on TV or in the media. So if that’s the case, how do I make sure I don’t fall into the same trap (if I ever do decide to use this as research for a novel)??

I’ve already lined up a 3 hour Friday night ride-along with one of the female patrol officers which I’m pretty excited about – I specifically asked for a female patrol officer because I know I lean towards strong female protagonists in my books. However, I’m used to writing about women who lived 100 years ago…so where do I start getting into the mindset of a modern day female police officer?

This is where I want to get input from you, my knowledgable TKZers!  What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions about the police in books/media today? What mistakes do you see often in mystery novels about local law enforcement? What questions would you ask a local female patrol officer if you were doing a ride-along?



How Long Should A Sentence Be?

by James Scott Bell

Riffing off of Kris’s post on paragraphs and pacing, I want to drill down into the length of sentences. Kris touched on it, quoting Ronald Tobias: “Short sentences are more dramatic; long sentences are calmer by nature and tend to be more explanatory or descriptive.”

We all know thriller writers favor short sentences. And maybe today, as attention spans constrict ever … Squirrel! … more, all genres (save “literary”) may lean toward lean.

But an intriguing article over at Literary Hub makes an impassioned plea for the “long and complicated sentence.” The author, Joe Moran, writes:

The style guides say: keep your sentences short. Write cleanly, cut as many words as you can, and don’t overburden your reader’s short-term memory by delaying the arrival of the full stop. But sometimes a sentence just needs to be long…

A long sentence should exult in its own expansiveness, lovingly extending its line of thought while being always clearly moving to its close. It should create anticipation, not confusion, as it goes along. The hard part is telling the difference between the two…A long sentence can seem thrillingly out of breath, deliciously tantalizing, so long as we feel the writer is still in charge…

Every writer is a poet by default and every sentence a little poem. The longer the sentence, the more closely it resembles poetry, or should do.

That last point reminded me of what the great John D. MacDonald once said he strived for. He wanted “a bit of magic in [the] prose style, a bit of unobtrusive poetry. I want to have words and phrases that really sing.”

MacDonald was clear, however, that he wanted those sentences to serve the story, never yank the reader out of it. That’s the essential principle in my view. The prose is the servant of the story, not the other way around.

Moran goes on:

For the American writing teacher Francis Christensen, learning to write was also about learning to live. He believed that teaching his students how to write a really great long sentence could teach them to “look at life with more alertness.” It should not just be about ensuring that the sentence is grammatically correct, or even clear. The one true aim, he wrote, was “to enhance life—to give the self (the soul) body by wedding it to the world, to give the world life by wedding it to the self.” He wanted his students to become “sentence acrobats” who could “dazzle by their syntactic dexterity.”

I agree that a great long sentence should be a look at life with more “alertness.” But you have to watch it with the “dazzle” part. You don’t want the reader stopping to think, Who does this joker think he is? Just get on with it! As Moran rightly notes:

A long sentence too should be a beautiful, indelible gift. It should give pleasure without provisos, not buttonhole and bedazzle the reader with virtuosity.

The way to do that is to make sure the sentence is consistent with the narrative voice.

But suppose you write in a lean, mean style. Would there ever be occasion for you to consider a long sentence? Yes—to show us the inner life of a character in moments of high emotional intensity. For example:

Horace McCoy

Horace McCoy was one of the great noir pulp writers, part of the Black Mask crew. His most famous novel is They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? He had an innate power in his prose, and most of the time it’s as hardboiled as a twenty-minute egg. But every now and then he’ll pull you in with style for the purpose of illustrating heightened emotion.

Here is a passage from his 1938 novel, I Should Have Stayed Home. We’re in the first chapter, and desperation is squeezing the narrator, a struggling actor in Hollywood. He’s been cooped up all day in his little apartment and has to get out. He charges out into the night. Note how the sound of the sentences gives the impression of someone walking fast and agitated.

On Vine Street I went north towards Hollywood Boulevard, crossing Sunset, passing the drive-in stand where the old Paramount lot used to be, seeing young girls and boys in uniform hopping cars, and seeing too, in my mind, the ironic smiles on the faces of Wallace Reid and Valentino and all the other old-time stars who used to work on this very spot, and who now looked down, pitying these girls and boys for working at jobs in Hollywood they might just as well be working at in Waxahachie or Evanston or Albany; thinking if they were going to do this, there was no point in their coming out here in the first place.

The Brown Derby, the sign said, and I crossed the street, not wanting to pass directly in front, hating the place and all the celebrities in it (only because they were celebrities, something I was not), hating the people standing in front, waiting with autograph books, thinking: You’ll be lighting for my autograph one of these days, missing Mona terribly now, more than I had all afternoon, because passing this place that was full of stars made me more than ever want to be a star myself and made me more than ever aware of how impossible this was alone, without her help.

Not only does this provide a window into the narrator’s inner life, it also weaves in the description of place and a bit of exposition, too. Triple duty.

So don’t be afraid to expand the occasional sentence if the moment is right. If it doesn’t work out, you can hit the delete key. But if it does work, you’ve hit the delight key—for you and the reader both.


The Social Life of a Writer

By Mark Alpert

Thomas Pynchon is to blame for my unrealistic expectations. The author of Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 has a lot to answer for.

Forty years ago I read Pynchon’s first novel, V., which was published in 1963. It’s a rollicking tale about nose jobs and genocide and the hunt for albino alligators in the sewers of New York City, but what made the deepest impression on me were Pynchon’s descriptions of wild New York parties. Several of the novel’s characters belong to a gang called the Whole Sick Crew, a motley group of artists who gather at bohemian bacchanals in cramped Manhattan apartments. Here’s a sample:

“The party itself, tonight, was divided in three parts. Fergus, and his date, and another couple had long retreated into the bedroom with a gallon of wine; locked the door; and let the Crew do what they could in the way of chaos to the rest of the place. The sink on which Stencil now sat would become Melvin’s perch: he would play his guitar and there would be horahs and African fertility dances in the kitchen before midnight. The lights in the living room would go out one by one, Schoenberg’s quartets (complete) would go on the record player/changer, and repeat, and repeat, while cigarette coals dotted the room like watchfires and the promiscuous Debby Sensay (e.g.) would be on the floor, caressed by Raoul, say, or Slab, while she ran her hand up the leg of another, sitting on the couch with her roommate — and on, in a kind of love feast or daisy chain; wine would spill, furniture would be broken; Fergus would awake briefly next morning, view the destruction and residual guests sprawled about the apartment; cuss them all out and go back to sleep.”

I was still in college when I read this passage for the first time, so of course it sounded totally awesome. I headed to New York for graduate school and found an itsy-bitsy studio apartment on West 101st Street, and pretty soon I was living the Pynchonian dream, writing poetry during the day to get my MFA degree and carousing in various Manhattan neighborhoods at night. And after grad school I chose a career — journalism — that mixed writing with revelry. Even in smallish towns, newspaper reporters throw some pretty good parties. Because the salaries for reporters are so low, most of the people who take those jobs are singles in their twenties, which is the prime demographic for partying.

When I worked for the Claremont Eagle Times in New Hampshire, we used to go to the Lucky Dragon, a Chinese restaurant that turned into a nightclub on the weekends. Across the river in Proctorsville, Vermont, was a place called Section Eight; I think the bar’s name was a reference to a state law regarding mental health. (Or maybe it was a reference to the federal law for housing subsidies? That possibility seems less likely, but who knows?) The place had a big brass bell hanging over the bar, and the bartenders would ring it whenever a customer gave a tip. The bands that played there were terrible, and the bar had to close by 1 a.m. because of another state law, but it didn’t matter. We always had a great time.

When I worked for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, all the reporters went to Kat-n-Harry’s, a place that also served as a watering hole for the state legislators. Many of those politicians came from towns that were really remote — Dothan, Demopolis, Monroeville, and so on — and when they came to the state capital for the legislative session, they were itching to cut loose in the evenings and maybe act a little more foolish than they would in their podunk hometowns. So for a newspaper reporter, going to Kat-n-Harry’s was a good way to hear some gossip and maybe get a scoop or two.

Sorry, I have to tell this story: one time I was sitting at a table at Kat-n-Harry’s with a whole bunch of legislators and lobbyists (from Southern Bell, Alabama Power, the Farm Bureau, the teachers union) when the woman sitting next to me said, “I have a scoop for you.” At the same time, she surreptitiously slipped a crumpled napkin into my hand. I played it cool, didn’t say anything, kept laughing at the politicians’ jokes. A few minutes later I went to the men’s room and unwrapped the napkin, which had the woman’s telephone number written on it in lipstick. I called her the next day and we went out for dinner; it turned out to be a terrible date, and that was the end of it, but I have to give her credit for that great opening move.

Inevitably, my social life slowed down as I got older. I moved back to New York when I got a job at Fortune Magazine, but the city didn’t seem as fun-loving as it had been when I was in grad school. Fortune was a pretty staid magazine, and there were many highly ambitious ass-kissers on the staff. I met some fun people outside of work (including the woman who would become my wife) and we partied at some of the clubs that I could’ve never afforded when I was a younger, but I didn’t have the same stamina. I discovered that I could no longer drink four beers at night and expect no consequences the next day. So I started drinking less and writing more. I gave up the hedonistic Pynchonian lifestyle and emulated the author instead of his fictional creations. I wrote four novels by the time I was forty.

Then my wife and I had kids, and everything changed. We became friends with the parents of our children’s friends. We spent our weekends shepherding the kids to soccer practices and Little League games and dance classes and play rehearsals. My novels started to get published, and I made enough money to quit my magazine job and write fiction full-time. In short, my social life was completely transformed. Instead of seeing my journalism colleagues every day, I had to arrange occasional lunches and get-togethers. I spent most of my time with my family and my characters.

Now, though, one of our kids is in college, and the other will be matriculating in the fall. My wife and I are thinking about traveling and catching up with old friends. And I’m trying to attend as many literary events as I can. This week I went to a reading at a wonderful bookstore in Brooklyn called Unnameable Books. The event was organized by the editors of Conjunctions, a biannual literary journal published by Bard College. Four contributors to the journal’s current issue participated in the reading, and one of them was my good friend Dave King, author of the 2005 novel The Ha-Ha.

It was a fun evening. I had two glasses of wine. That’s about as crazy as I get these days. But it’s enough.

The Toronto Star, Canada’s biggest newspaper, recently ran a nice review of my latest novel, THE COMING STORM. You can read it here.


READER FRIDAY: Share How You’ve Used Family & Friends for a Book Plot

After Sue Coletta’s post “When Real Life Collides with Fiction,” I wondered how many other TKZ members have stories about the many ways an author can abuse family and friends for the sake of a book. I’ve heard of wild stories at writer conferences where authors talk about staging a crime scene using friends as attackers & victims or cornering a relative to brainstorm a murder over Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.

In what ways have you used the people in your life for research or to develop a book plot?



by Debbie Burke


Welcome to True Crime Thursday, a new feature on TKZ. The fourth Thursday of each month will showcase:

  • Interesting, unusual, or bizarre crimes;
  • Legal developments;
  • Colorful criminals whose antics boggle the mind.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

A real-life incident just might inspire the plot for your next novel.

To kick off True Crime Thursday, check out the lady who thought her high heels were a good hiding place for cocaine



The Page Proof Nightmare

By John Gilstrap

[COMMERCIAL: The latest video on my YouTube channel is all about sex, violence and bad language in fiction.]

In the traditional publishing world, milestones define the production cycle of a book.  You turn in the manuscript, then you get the global edit from the editor.  Next come the larger structural changes and you turn those in.  Copy edits are next, those niggling little change-which-to-that kinds of changes.  (Or why did-that-guy’s-name-change-between-Chapter-Four-and-Chapter-Fifteen kinds of changes.)

The final step is the one I hate–the page proofs.  That milestone is my last shot at making sure that the book is exactly what I want it to be.  Did the copy edits I rejected make it through anyway?  Have any other errors made it through?  Does the plot really make sense?

For me, this is a staggeringly stressful process.  First of all, I suck as a copy editor.  I’m not a details-oriented reader.  Once I get lost in the “fictive dream” (thanks for the phrase, Brother Bell), I don’t see the little stuff.  So, for the page proofs, I have to force myself to . . . Read.  Every.  Word.  It takes forever.

I hate page proofs.

My beloved Delta mechanical pencil sits atop the dog eared pages where I made changes.

But it helps a little to have traditions in place to get me through.  It starts with the Delta mechanical pencil.  I’m a fountain pen purist when it comes to hand writing my manuscripts, but for me, editing must be done with a pencil.  This Delta pencil has been my go-to editing instrument for at least the last 15 books.  I like the weight of it, the balance.  And it will always write, irrespective of the angle, whether I’m sitting upright or reclining in a chair.

I grab a hunk of pages and start reading.  Where I note a change, I dog ear that page, but all the pages have to stay in order for a while because it’s not unusual to have to refer back.

After Lord knows how many sessions of detailed reading of a story I am sooo sick of reading, I finally reach the last page.  I turn it over and put it atop the 500-page mound of paper.  In the case of the latest of the Grave novels, Total Mayhem (July 1, 2019), whose page proofs I finished just this morning, I had marked changes on 90 of the book’s 480 pages.

The good pages get tossed to the floor for recycling.

Those pages go to my office, where I sit at my desk and take a last look at every page.  (I can’t count on myself to have dog eared every page where I’ve made a change.)  The clean pages get tossed on the floor, and I stack the edited pages into a new pile.  That pile then gets separated into mini-stacks of ten pages each.  This morning, I scanned the stacks into my computer as PDFs, and then I emailed the PDFs to the production editor at Kensington.

So now it’s official.  Total Mayhem is in the can.  I couldn’t change a word of it even if I wanted to.  The good news is that I really like the story.  Now I just have to deliver two new manuscripts in the next 12 months.  (Yes, I’m out of my mind.)

So, TKZ family, are there parts of the writing/editing/production process that you hate?  Parts that you love?

Final note: Today is my birthday!  As you read this, I be getting prepped for/undergoing/recovering from an epidural injection in my cervical spine to relieve the pain of a pinched nerve.  I expect to be fine, but my responses here might be slow.  Do I know how to celebrate or what!


Pacing and Spacing:
The Power Of Artful Paragraphing

“All my stories are cinematic…every paragraph is a shot.” — Ray Bradbury

By PJ Parrish

The woman in my workshop had a question. I didn’t have an answer.

“How long should my paragraphs be?” she asked.

In years of teaching writing workshops and doing too many critiques to count, I had never really thought about that. I weaseled my way through the answer, saying that it was a feeling of sorts, that you just had to trust your instincts, find your style. More word gumbo about gotta have rhythm and there were no rules…

It wasn’t until I got home from the conference that I remembered Ray Bradbury. I had lost his book Zen In the Art of Writing years ago, maybe had lent it to someone. But I sorta remembered he mighta maybe said something about paragraphs. So I got a new copy of the book.  Here is what he said in his essay “Shooting Haiku in a Barrel.”

“All the paragraphs are shots. By the way the paragraph reads, you know whether it’s a close-up or a long shot…I may be the most cinematic novelist in the country today. All of my short stories can be shot right off the page. Each paragraph is a shot.”

I didn’t realize that his idea that each paragraph of a story was a camera shot had been the basis of my own writing for decades. It was a sub-conscious thing. Or was it? Was hitting the ENTER key actually a conscious choice? I dug deeper and found Joyce Carol Oates:

One of the qualities of writing that is not much stressed is its problem-solving aspect, having to do with the presentation of material: how to structure it, what sort of sentences (direct, elliptical, simple or compound, syntactically elaborate), what tone (in art, “tone” is everything), pacing. Paragraphing is a way of dramatization, as the look of a poem on a page is dramatic; where to break lines, where to end sentences.

Which led me to Ronald Tobias’s “The Elements of Fiction Writing: Theme & Strategy,”

The rhythm of action and character is controlled by the rhythm of your sentences. You can alter mood, increase or decrease tension, and pace the action by the number of words you put in a sentence. And because sentences create patterns, the cumulative effect of your sentences has a larger overall effect on the work itself. Short sentences are more dramatic; long sentences are calmer by nature and tend to be more explanatory or descriptive. If your writing a tense scene and use long sentences [me here: or long paragraphs], you may be working against yourself.

Then I thought, maybe we should ask a lawyer.

(Pause while I wait for you to stop laughing).

If you’ve ever tried to read a legal brief, you know about bad writing. But here are two pretty decent lawyers on the subject of pacing:

We simply don’t have time to ferret out one bright idea buried in too long a sentence. — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

You want [a brief] to be a little bit of a page turner, to have some sense of drama, some building up to the legal arguments. — Justice John Roberts

Maybe it was all those piano lessons, but when it comes to pacing, I always used to think of writing in musical terms. Composers use punctuation to speed up or slow down pace and musicians use types of “articulation” to enhance whatever mood they are going for — intense? dangerous? romantic? thoughtful?

Sound familar? Good writers have similar tools — punctuation, length of sentences and paragraphs (short and choppy or longer and measured?) to create an emotional response in their readers. The best writers understand this not only creates emotion, it provides variety on each page and over the whole book.

But pacing is also a visual thing. Which brings us back to the humble ¶.  Which has, I just found out today, a fancy name — the pilcrow.  I don’t think most writers devote enough brain power to the pilcrow. But to my mind (and eye) it is a potent little tool that can really help you pace your story.  How many paragraphs you use per page, and how long or short your paragraphs are should be conscious choices you make. Consider this:

Fragments, the length of sentences, punctuation, and how often you paragraph can all work to give a particular pace. If you really think about, you’ll realize that you can use sentence and paragraph structure to create a feeling of speed or slowness, depending on what kind of emotional response you want to induce in your reader.

Or how about this:

Think of it! You can move a reader through a story fast. Their hearts will race!

Or you can slow them down and make them use their heads.

It’s all in how your sentences look on the page.

The same thought but expressed two different ways. The first is measured, more academic in pace, meant to make you slow down and digest the thought. The second is lively and urgent, making you anticipate an important climax-point. Neither is correct. They are just two different styles of pacing, word choice, sentence length and paragraphing to different affect. Here’s another example from a real novel:

There was less than an hour of daylight left, and Louis had the thought that maybe they could set up roadblocks and operate them through the night. But even as that thought moved through Louis’s mind, so did doubt. Maybe they were just chasing air. And if they were, he couldn’t help but worry about his future, and that of his boss, Captain Steele.

Louis heard a sudden rustling in the trees. He drew his Glock, but all he saw was a squirrel scampering across a fall log and leaves skittering in an eddy of wind. But then he heard something else. What was it? A voice? Shut, shut, shut…

What was he hearing? Was it real words or was it just the freakish whistling sound of the wind in the iron train trestle below? The sound came again. Shut up…

He could tell now it wasn’t the wind. It was real words, someone talking. Suddenly, two men bolted from the trees near the entrance to the trestle. One was dressed in camouflage, and the other man was wearing dark pants and a yellow dress shirt. The men ran away, stumbling toward the trestle in a clumsy run, with one man pulling the other man along.

“Captain Steele!” Louis shouted.

Compare that to this version:

They had less than an hour of daylight left. Maybe they could set up roadblocks and operate them through the night. But Louis had his doubts. Maybe they were just chasing air. And if they were, he couldn’t stop thinking about his future. And Steele’s.

A rustle in the trees came to him on the wind.

Louis drew his Glock and turned, scanning the brush. A squirrel scampered away. Leaves skittered across the path.

Then something else…a voice?

Shut, shut, shut…

Words? Or was it just the freakish whistle of wind in the iron train trestles below?

The sound came again.

Shut up…

No wind. Real words. Louis spun.

Two men bolted from the trees. One in camouflage, the other in dark pants and yellow shirt. They stumbled toward the trestle in a clumsy run, one pulling at the other.

“Captain!” Louis shouted.

The second one is from our most recent Louis Kincaid thriller The Damage Done as it actually appears on the page. The first one I rewrote to make it purposely turgid. Why is the second one better? Lots of reasons. First, we’re at the climax, deep into an action scene. We’re deep in Louis’s point of view (where we should be). It’s cold, getting dark, everyone’s on edge. Louis’s adrenaline is pumping. We need you to feel that.  So we need you to read fast.  We kept every sentence as short as possible to simulate Louis’s nervous thoughts.  We have eliminated every descriptive word possible because this isn’t the moment to be “writerly” about wind eddies, squirrels or even the fact the man is wearing a dress shirt (it registers to Louis only as a flash of yellow.) We don’t even need to repeat the captain’s name in the last line because in this frantic action, Louis would just yell out “Captain!”  And we kept the paragraphs as short and punchy as possible.

Now, notice how each scene looks on the “page.”  As I said, writing is aural, but it’s also visual. Why?

  • Too many long paragraphs per page are hard on the eye. It can read “old-fashioned” or worse, “textbook.” Long graphs worked for Dickens and Bronte. Not so well for today’s mysteries and thrillers.
  • White space on a page spells relief. It balances the larger blocks of expository writing. If you don’t believe me, ask any artist about the value of negative space. Or go read Elmore Leonard.  Dialogue provides “white space.”
  • Paragraphs pack emotional punch. Longer ones make the reader slow down, which you want them to do at times. But short paragraphs, say for an action scene, quicken the pace and the reader’s pulse.
  • And something to consider: Ebooks are often smaller in format than tree books, often giving the illusion of a blockier text per page.

Last week, one of our First Page Critique folks submitted his sample called Samuel’s Mine.  It got some good reviews, and I liked it as well. But I thought it could have used some judicious paragraphing, so I asked the author for permission to re-run it here as a lesson.  Here is how he wrote it:


Oddly enough her fingernails were left unbroken. Each nail remained intact, as sharp and fresh as they had been right before Julia went to sleep. The bright pink polish now served as a beacon of hope in this otherwise despondent room. She looked around, unbelieving, and still trying to figure out the situation. How did she get here? Where is here? She remembered talking to Jacob on the phone. She remembered painting her nails sitting on the edge of her bed. All else was a fog, like unrecognizable shadows in the poorly lit recesses of her brain. Something was there but yet nothing.

She turned her head. Her neck seized instantly with stiff pain. Oh dear Christ! A thick perspiration began its slow descent down her forehead. She lay across the floor with a dull but growing pounding building inside her head. She rarely got headaches. I fell, she thought. The fog in her head was drifting away as her surroundings grew clearer. I could I fall? Sharp jabs of pain filled her upper body. No, No, I couldn’t have. This isn’t right. She winced while moving her head to the left. The room was dark and she could smell mildew. The perspiration slid a smooth path down her face although a chill ran through her. The fog finally lifted from her head leaving the remnants of ache and confusion. How did I get on the floor?

Her body shuttered, skin prickled, as a chilling draft surfaced. She could hear the faint shuffle of footsteps above her. Julia’s legs; however, were cramped and stiff pressed on the cold floor. In fact, the floor she was on was not a floor, but rather stones. She can see them now – large cobblestones like the ones that used to line the streets in the City. They were now biting against her body and left prickles on her skin. Goosebumps. This is not right. She scanned the room fighting the ache, unknowing where she was. Stone block walls now came into her ever-strengthening sight. And that smell was more than mildew, but what?

The thick moisture moving down from her brow found her parched lips and with a fine swoop of her tongue, Julia tasted it. At first the sheer moisture was soothing to her mouth, but shortly the taste surfaced. It was not sweat. This tasted coppery. She had her fair share of fights and busted her lip a few times playing hockey. Julia was tough and knew this taste well. It was the taste of blood.

Now I’m going to simply delete a few words and sentences and add more paragraphs:


Oddly enough her fingernails were left unbroken.

Each nail remained intact, as sharp and fresh as they had been right before Julia went to sleep. The bright pink polish was like a beacon of hope in this dank and dim room.

She looked around, trying to figure out the situation. How did she get here? Where is here? She remembered talking to Jacob on the phone. She remembered painting her nails sitting on the edge of her bed. All else was a fog, like unrecognizable shadows moving through her brain. Something was there, yet nothing was there.

She turned her head. Her neck seized up with pain.

Oh dear Christ!

She was laying down, her legs were twisted painfully underneath. A dull pounding was building inside her head. 

I fell…

The fog in her head was drifting away as her surroundings grew clearer. 

How could I fall? No, No, I couldn’t have. This isn’t right.

She slowly moved her head to the right, wincing. Now she could see that the walls were made of stone. And she could smell something awful, worse than mildew. Sweat slid down her face even as a chill ran through her. She became aware of the coldness of the floor beneath her. She reached out and felt it. No, not a floor — rough, more like cobblestones.

She heard the sound of footsteps above and lay still, holding her breath.

The sweat was moving down her cheek. Her parched lips parted and she tasted it.

Not sweat. It tasted…metallic, like copper.

Then she knew. She had busted her lip a few times playing hockey. It was blood. Her own blood.

Notice how the first version LOOKS on the page. Each paragraph is of almost equal weight. Why did I add these graphs? Well, this is an action scene, quiet though it is. We want to feel the tension. The woman is just gaining consciousness so her thoughts should be fuzzy and fragmented, so the pacing should reflect this “dreamy” state of mind. To enhance the intimate point of view, her thoughts should be paragraphed and italicized rather than imbedded in the narrative and attributed with “she thought.” Notice, too, how more urgent the second version looks on the page. And there are a couple of cool moments that just need to stand out on their own.  Like the first image of the fingernails and the last image of her blood.  If you land upon a good image, sometimes you need to let it sing solo high in the trees.

Now, I am not saying my version is the best, because paragraphing also goes to the point of individual style. And some writers have a more legato (connected) style while others favor more staccato (shorter and punchier).  But I do think good pacing is a combination of both. You gotta know when to hit ENTER.

Because, as Ray Bradbury said, each paragraph is a mini-scene and when you hit ENTER you are helping your reader enter a new scene, thought or action. I’ll leave you with one more example. It’s from one of my favorite opening pages from a novel.


It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

That’s the opening to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I love the way the first line sits there all alone, like a roadside sign that you’re entering hell.  I love the juxtaposition of the next long graph with its gorgeous imagery and the nonchalance of the unnamed man. And then, a third paragraph that bam! gives us our arsonist-star by name. I love the way this page looks and sounds. Bradbury could have made this all one graph. But no, he chose three.

That, folks, is master pilcrowing.



Wounded Writer Syndrome

By Sue Coletta

Being a writer can be traumatizing.

Back in October I finished writing Silent Mayhem, a book that deeply affected me.

Sure, I was passionate about the story — I wouldn’t have written it otherwise — but it morphed into more than that; it slashed open another part of me.

I’m still not sure if I’m feeling my own emotions or my character’s, the line between reality and fiction blurred beyond a rational explanation.

While writing, I became the vessel and something else inside me wrote the story, my soul taking it places I hadn’t foreseen in the planning stage. This sounds like a good thing on the surface, but something occurs in the story that wounded me on such a deep personal level. Was it the best thing for the Mayhem Series? Absolutely. This series of events became the catalyst for the next book. And yet, I was still grappling with how to move past it.

The holidays rolled around, and I reverted back into my happy-go-lucky self again. During that time, I started writing Book 4 of my Grafton County Series, but even this new storyline pierced several layers of my heart, illuminating the fact that I may never escape emotional turmoil.

Fast-forward to the beginning of February. My publisher and I worked with the cover designer for Silent Mayhem. On the day the final cover popped into my inbox, my editor sent back the first round of edits.

No big deal, I told myself. I’m a professional. I’ll just leapfrog into the story, bang out the edits, and then plunge back into my WIP. Easy peasy, right?


I read the story one last time from start to finish, making my corrections along the way. Well, I soon found myself in the same quandary, the storyline almost crippling me emotionally.

Friday night I finished my edits and had planned to reopen my WIP on Saturday morning, but as I sat at my desk, I wasn’t able to let go of Silent Mayhem, the storyline tearing open scars I didn’t even know existed. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake off the emotional upheaval. This isn’t the first time it’s happened, either. Unlike before, though, I don’t have the luxury of processing my feelings ad nauseam, or even take a well-earned break. Grafton County, Book 4, is due in March.

So, what do you do? Exercise, read, watch a movie … anything to take your mind off the story, right? But what if you still can’t flip the emotional switch to off?

I turned to our ol’ friend Google for the answer. Surely other writers have experienced the same thing. One brave soul must have written about it, right? Surprisingly, I couldn’t find one post. Not one! I read about specific emotions that may lie at the heart of my unrest … grief, betrayal, uncertainty, vengeance, etc. etc. But nowhere could I find advice on this topic as a whole.

What would you even call it, Wounded Writer Syndrome?

Psychology Today has a fantastic article about trauma and how writing about it can help heal us. Writer’s Digest also advocates using a traumatic experience to fuel our writing. Harvard Medical School uses the term “expressive writing” when writing becomes cathartic after a difficult life event. But what if writing caused the trauma?

After a lot of soul-searching, I came up with my own way of coping.

The first step is the hardest of all. It requires us to delve deep within our psyche and unearth the root cause. At what point in the story did our emotions entangle with the character’s? Where did we lose control? Is there a certain scene or chapter that arouses a physical reaction, like crying, shaking, or squirming in the chair? If we’re able to pinpoint the exact moment that first had a profound effect on us, the healing process can begin.

Expressive writing may hold the key to healing a wounded writer’s soul, even if the trauma’s self-inflicted. Expressive writing is also beneficial to our overall well-being. Researchers studied the effect of expressive writing on everything from asthma and arthritis to breast cancer and migraines.

They conducted a study in Kansas, where women with breast cancer experienced fewer symptoms and went to fewer cancer-related appointments in the months following expressive writing. The aim of the study wasn’t to combat the disease, and the authors of the paper don’t claim the actual cancer cells were affected. However, the study shows other aspects of the women’s health improved faster than the control group, who merely stated facts rather than expressing the emotional impact of the disease.


What does the act of committing words to paper do? Initially it was assumed this simply happened through catharsis, that people felt better because they’d let out their pent-up feelings. But then Pennebaker began looking in detail at the language people used in their writing.

He found that the types of words people used changed over the course of the four sessions. Those whose wounds healed the fastest began by using the word “I” a lot, but in later sessions moved on to saying “he” or “she” more often, suggesting they were looking at the event from other perspectives. They also used words like “because”, implying they were making sense of the events and putting them into a narrative. So Pennebaker believes that the simple act of labelling your feelings and putting them into a story is somehow affecting the immune system. 

I propose the same holds true for those of us afflicted by Wounded Writer Syndrome. Find the exact moment in your story and write about how that scene, or scenes, affected you, the writer. At that point, we can then piece together our shattered spirit … just in time to traumatize ourselves all over again with the next book. 🙂

Have you experienced Wounded Writer Syndrome? What are some ways that helped you heal?



Bonding Character and Reader

by James Scott Bell

Lee Patrick as Effie Perine in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

What is the most important thing your novel must accomplish with the opening pages?

A gripping first line? An action-driven plot? World building? A compelling lead character? Style? Voice?

All of the above?

Well, sure! If you can do all that, do it. But let me suggest that there’s something else, without which these elements won’t be as effective.

What the author must do, as soon as possible, is bond the character to the reader. It’s an emotional alchemy that render fictive gold. When the reader is not just interested in, but emotionally connected to the main character, the urge to turn pages ramps up to its fullest potential.

This is why the concept of the opening disturbance is so crucial. When a character is confronted with threat or challenge, we have a naturally sympathetic reaction. We can identify. We’ve all been there. That’s why this a good first step to the bonding I’m talking about.

An even more powerful effect can be achieved by adding a second technique, one I call the Care Package. It’s one of my fourteen signpost scenes as laid out in Super Structure.

In the most basic sense, it refers to a caring relationship is in place before the story begins between the main character and someone else. This is to distinguish it from Pet the Dog, which is when the Lead, somewhere in the middle of the story, takes time to help another character who is weaker and in need.

A perfect example of both is in The Hunger Games. When we first meet Katniss, she is out hunting to feed her family—her mother and her little sister, Prim. Katniss’ actions are illegal, but she does this out of love. Those relationships are in place before the novel begins. Author Suzanne Collins also includes in this Care Package a scruffy cat that Katniss does not like. This is a skillful addition, for the Care Package works even if a character is resentful about the relationship and the caring is done out of obligation. That works because we admire those who do their duty, regardless of feelings.

In the middle of the book, Katniss becomes the protector of the weakest of the tributes in the Games—Rue. That’s an example of Pet the Dog. It is a relationship formed after the story is well under way.

I got an email recently from a writer who asked if the Care Package could be something the character is passionate about, like basketball or playing the piano.

The short answer is No. It has to be a human or an animal (as in Dorothy and Toto in The Wizard of Oz, or Terry Malloy and his pigeons in On the Waterfront). Being in love with an activity falls under the umbrella of self-interest. Caring about another person is the essence of selflessness.

Note, too, that the Care Package applies to any genre. Even the hardest of hardboiled fiction, as demonstrated in this passage from Dashiell Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon:

When Spade reached his office at ten o’clock the following morning Effie Perine was at her desk opening the morning’s mail. Her boyish face was pale under its sunburn. She put down the handful of envelopes and the brass paper-knife she held and said: “She’s in there.” Her voice was low and warning.

“I asked you to keep her away,” Spade complained. He too kept his voice low.

Effie Perine’s brown eyes opened wide and her voice was irritable as his: “Yes, but you didn’t tell me how.” Her eyelids went together a little and her shoulders drooped. “Don’t be cranky, Sam,” she said wearily. “I had her all night.”

Spade stood beside the girl, put a hand on her head, and smoothed her hair away from its parting. “Sorry, angel, I haven’t—” He broke off as the inner door opened. “Hello, Iva,” he said to the woman who had opened it.

One action: smoothing her hair. One line, and not even one Spade gets to finish! This moment is the only bit of tenderness Sam Spade shows to anybody in the book. But Hammett knew it would stand out for that very reason. We get one peek that Spade is not made of pure ice…because he has someone in his life he cares about.

Simple exercise: Before writing your novel, take ten minutes to brainstorm a list of possible Care Packages for your main character. Make some based in love and others out of duty. Eventually you will find the one that feels just right.

It will feel just right to the readers, too.

The floor is open. What Care Packages can you think of from favorite novels or films? NOTE: I’m in travel mode today so my comments will be scarce. Talk amongst yourselves!