First Page Critique – Dinner with a Celebrity

 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Welcome to another Brave Author who submitted a first page for review. Please enjoy reading it then we’ll discuss.

 

Dinner with a Celebrity

My knees nearly buckled at the sound of the doorbell. Glancing through the window, I saw them waiting on the porch. Fortunately, they were five minutes late. I wished it could have been ten. Accepting that I couldn’t just leave them standing out there, I headed for the door. Even before the door was fully open, a guy hauling a camera brushed past me, mumbling to himself. Another hoisting a microphone boom like a javelin, followed right behind. Without another word they busied themselves setting up.

“Yes. Come right in,” I said, in a tone that may have sounded snarky but was mostly nerves. Without asking, the camera guy moved a chair nearer the window. Would it have killed him to ask? “Can I give you a hand?”

“Just need to get the soft light,” he said. Taking a few steps back he nudged my end table aside and spread out a tri-pod. “This gives the most flattering camera angle.” He was probably responding to my furrowed brow. “Carol will be here in a few minutes.”

“I see,” I had no idea what he meant.

“We have to get everything set up before she arrives. Heaven help us if we don’t capture the Grand Entrance.” He punctuated the statement with an exaggerated eye roll. Grand entrance? I was struck with dread that I might be spending a long evening with a diva.

The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances. I rushed back to the kitchen to check on dinner. What had I been thinking?

The truth is, I hadn’t. Why had I done it? Here’s why? The most pathetic reason on earth—because my friends were doing it.

Honest, I’m old enough to know better. Cold beer may have also been a factor.

That was at least four months ago and I had completely forgotten about it—until yesterday. It all came rushing back to me.

Right there in the bar, we all applied to a reality TV show called “Dinner with a Celebrity”. The show’s premise is simple. A regular person, like me, prepares a dinner. A celebrity, like Carol, comes over to help eat it. There’s a little more to it than that, but not really. I went along only because there was zero chance any of us would be selected. Yesterday, they phoned to tell me I had won and to give me the name of my celebrity.

~~~

First of all, congratulations to the Brave Author for starting this scene with action, conflict, and tension.

GENERAL OVERVIEW: Brave Author doesn’t specify a genre but the light tone and the situation may indicate Romantic Comedy. TKZers, what do you think?

A camera crew barges through the front door of the protagonist’s home and hurriedly sets up equipment in preparation for a vain celebrity diva who’s about to arrive.

Right away, readers share the character’s discomfort. No one likes strangers to intrude in their home, even for a benign reason like a TV reality show. The description of a boom as a javelin is not only accurate but funny.

The backstory set up is handled quickly with a deft, humorous touch, showing the character’s personality and self-doubt:

Why had I done it? Here’s why.? The most pathetic reason on earth—because my friends were doing it. 

Honest, I’m old enough to know better. Cold beer may have also been a factor. 

Haven’t we all done dumb things because of peer pressure, aided and abetted by alcohol? That makes the character relatable and likable, if a bit goofy.

However, backstory can be further condensed and punched up. See the example shown later.

SPECIFIC SUGGESTIONS:

Name: When writing in first-person POV, the sooner a name is established, the more easily the reader can slide into the story world.

Since the person pushing through the door is mumbling, you might as well use that opportunity to have him say, “Sorry we’re late. You’re Mr./Ms. Doe, right?”

“Yes, but call me John/Jane.”

Gender: I’m unclear if the character is male or female. “The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances.” That implies male but today it could go either way.

Like a name, immediate establishment of gender removes any nagging questions in the reader’s mind.

Maybe I’m being sexist but, to me, the overall tone sounded like a woman trying to write like a man. Would it have killed him to ask? and I rushed back to the kitchen… felt more like the attitude and action of a woman.

The first line could be stronger. “My knees nearly buckled” is not only a cliché but “nearly” weakens it even more.  Also, such an intense reaction to a ringing doorbell seems over the top.

Two lines struck me as better possibilities for the opening sentence:

The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances.

 

Or

 

Honest, I’m old enough to know better. Cold beer may have also been a factor. 

 

Exaggeration establishes a humorous tone but it felt overdone. I already mentioned knees nearly buckling because of the doorbell. Another example: I was struck with dread that I might be spending a long evening with a divaDread is a potent emotion, too strong for the minor inconvenience the character is experiencing.

Secondary characters:

Good job of showing the camera guy as the long-suffering worker who must put up with  spoiled, entitled celebrities.

Excellent depiction of Carol’s personality. She hasn’t even appeared on the scene but the reader already knows she a vain PITA (pain in the a$$). If the genre is rom-com, you’ve set up a hate-at-first-sight introduction which immediately promises conflict between the principal characters. Well done. 

Tone: the overall feel of the writing is inconsistent. At times, it sounds tentative and uncertain yet other times overstated (e.g. dread).  If you’re establishing the character’s personality as an insecure, neurotic, Woody Allen-type, that may be appropriate.

However, if you want a stronger, more positive tone, I suggest you delete some modifiers and sharpen weak sentences.

Here’s a possible revision that assumes the protagonist is male. Also, a little rearrangement for punchier impact:

The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances.

My knees nearly buckled at the sound of the doorbell. Glancing through the window, I saw them crew waiting on the porch. Fortunately, they were five minutes late. Ten would have been better. I wished it could have been ten. Accepting that I couldn’t just leave them standing out there, As much as I wanted to leave them standing there, I headed for the door. Even before it the door was fully open, a guy hauling a camera brushed past me, mumbling, to himself. “Sorry we’re late. You’re Mr. Doe, right?”

“Yes, but call me John.”

Another crew member, hoisting a microphone boom like a javelin, followed right behind the camera man. Without another word, they busied themselves setting up.

Yes. Come right in,” I said., in a  My tone that may have sounded snarky but was mostly nerves. Without asking, t The camera guy moved a chair nearer the window. Would it have killed him to ask permission? It was my house, not a sound set. “Can I give you a hand?”

“Just need to get the soft light,” he said. Taking a few steps back he nudged my end table aside and spread out a tri-pod. “This gives the most flattering camera angle.” He was probably responding to my furrowed brow. “Carol will be here in a few minutes.”

“I see.” I frowned, having no idea what he meant.

“We have to get everything set up before she arrives. Heaven help us if we don’t capture the Grand Entrance.” He punctuated the statement with an exaggerated eye roll. Grand entrance? I was struck with dread that Oh, great. I didn’t look forward to a long evening with a diva.

I hustled to the kitchen to check on dinner in the oven. The very last thing I needed in my life right now was a woman, no matter how innocent the circumstances. I rushed back to the kitchen to check on dinner. What had I been thinking?

The truth is, I hadn’t. Why had I done it? Here’s why? The most pathetic reason on earth—because my friends were doing it.

Honest, I’m old enough to know better. Cold beer may have also been a factor.

That was at least four months ago and I had completely forgotten about it—until yesterday. It all came rushing back to me. 

Four months ago, right there in the bar, we all applied to a reality TV show called “Dinner with a Celebrity”. The show’s premise is simple. A regular person [guy], like me, prepares a dinner. A celebrity, like Carol, comes over to help eat it. There’s a little more to it than that, but not really. I went along only because there was zero chance any of us would be selected.

I’d completely forgotten until yesterday when the producer phoned to tell me I had won. My celebrity was Carol XYZ, the hottest dancing sensation to light up TikTok this month. [or whatever Carol’s claim to fame is].

~~~

The writing is clear, competent, and easy to read. The premise is contemporary, intriguing, and funny. Tweaks are small and easily accomplished. This page contains the ingredients for a tasty dinner and shows plenty of promise as an entertaining rom-com. 

Brave Author, thanks for submitting.

~~~

TKZers: Would you turn the page? Do you have suggestions for the Brave Author?

~~~

Looking for a new series to read during long winter nights? Try Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book, Instrument of the Devil, is FREE. 

Amazon             Other online booksellers

Running and Writing

Kay DiBianca

Chariots of Fire is one of my favorite movies. If you’ve seen it, you know it’s a great film about running. It’s well-constructed, beautifully rendered, and thought-provoking, and I occasionally watch it when I’m on the treadmill as an inspiration to keep huffing and puffing.

The film tells the mostly true story of two very different men, both exceptional runners, who are training to compete in the 1924 Olympics.

Harold Abrahams is a brash and confident law student at Cambridge University who boasts that he’s never lost a foot race. He follows it up by winning the College Dash, a race against the clock that had never been accomplished in the 700 years of its history.

Eric Liddell is the modest and devout son of a Scottish missionary who has determined his own future will be in the mission field. But Eric is also a remarkably gifted runner, and he wants to try his hand (and legs) at the Olympic track events before he returns to China.

The two men are headed toward an inevitable showdown, and their individual efforts comprise much of the film’s early scenes.

But the movie is about more than running and winning. That’s the obvious theme, the WHAT of the story. As the plot moves forward, a more subtle sub-theme emerges. The essence of the movie is the WHY.

Why were these men willing to spend so many lonely hours in the painful pursuit of a minute or two of glory that may not even happen?  A lot of people lust after a moment in the spotlight, but few are willing to put in the kind of grueling work these two did. There must be something deeper.

Perhaps the reason was revealed in a dinner conversation between Harold and Sybil Gordon, a talented singer/actress who eventually became his wife.

On their first date, she asks him, “Why running?”

He responds, “Why singing?”

“It’s my job,” she replies, but then immediately pauses and reflects. “No, that’s silly. I do it because I love it.

Ah.

Several scenes later, Eric has a conversation with his sister who is urging him to give up running to return to the mission field. Trying to make her understand his desire to compete in the Olympics, Eric says, “I believe that God made me for a purpose, for China. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.

* * *

Running and writing have a lot in common. To be serious in either field requires discipline, hard work, and perseverance. The runner paces himself/herself through long distances one step at a time just as the writer progresses word-by-word through his or her story. Along the way, one must develop the ability to deal with frustration, injury (running) or rejection (writing). These attributes are not for the faint of heart.

Now there’s no doubt the benefits in both areas are profound. Runners and writers enjoy time alone to explore their thought-worlds. Runners experience improved health, a sense of well-being, and even a boost to creativity. Writers often find a deeper meaning in their own existence when they offer the gift of their creative talent to the world. They might even make some money.

But is there something more? Like the runners in Chariots of Fire, serious writers seem to have a devotion to their chosen activity that transcends worldly reward. Perhaps it’s natural talent that draws them in, but there must be something deeper to hold them. Is it the challenge? The possibility of riches? The lure of fame? Is it the desire to create, to give a gift of oneself to a troubled world? Or is it simply the love of the craft?

* * *

The TKZ community is made up of writers who run the gamut from the relatively new like me to best-selling authors and authorities in the field. So there must be a variety of opinions on why each of us writes. I’d like to know. Why do you write?

 “Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.” — Ian Charlson in the role of Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire.

* * *

 

Saving One Life Is Like Saving the Whole World

Kathryn and Cece find themselves in another tangled web searching for a killer in order to save the life of a friend. Could the dead man’s watch hold the key to the mystery?

Killing the Mosquitoes in Your Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Dave Barry once said that the best time to visit Florida’s Disney World is 1965. Makes sense to me. I never saw the value in taking out a second mortgage to pack the family into a metal tube for a six-hour flight to an extended stay in a hot and humid swamp when we have Disneyland an hour away by car.

I once went golfing in Florida. It wasn’t the gators who eyed me on the tenth fairway that bothered me so much as the dang humidity. I felt like I had hot, wet towels draping my entire body, including my head. Swinging a club in a steam bath is not my idea of a good time.

And then there’s the skeeters. We have them in L.A., of course. But Florida has 80 different species of mosquito. They range from mere pests to carriers of potentially deadly pathogens. A perfect spot for a theme park!

Thus, when the Disney World location was selected, one of the first issues was, How are we going to get people to come to the Magic Kingdom in the middle of mosquito country?

Certainly that was on Walt Disney’s mind from the jump. So it was serendipity when Walt met a man named Joe Potter at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. This impressive gent was a graduate of West Point and MIT (engineering). As one bio puts it:

During World War II, he directed logistical planning for the invasion of northern France, an operation nicknamed “Red Ball Express.” After the war, he served in Washington, D.C. as assistant chief of engineers for Civil Works and Special Projects.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower tapped Potter to serve as governor of the Panama Canal Zone. You know what they have in Panama? Skeeters the size of canned hams. Carrying malaria, no less. One of Potter’s duties was figuring out how to control the blood suckers. Which he did.

Which is why Walt hired Joe Potter right there at the World’s Fair.

So Potter set about his task, and the first order of business was to take away the mosquitoes’ favorite breeding ground, standing water. Potter drained all the surrounding swampland and turned it into drainage ditches, so water would constantly flow.

Inside the park, you won’t find any standing water. There’s always a fountain or some sort of watery movement so the bugs can’t lay eggs.

Then there’s the architecture. Every building in Disney World is designed so that water from rain runs right off and has nowhere to collect.

And the flora: Disney World eschews plants that have soil where water can puddle.

And the fish: Disney World stocks their pools with the kind that love to eat mosquito larvae.

Now, someone may ask, why doesn’t Disney World just use a pesticide? The answer is, Walt was against it. He wanted to preserve the environment.

But they do spray….garlic! Mosquitoes hate garlic. So they use a garlic spray around the park that humans can’t smell but is decidedly anti-skeeter.

In other words, Disney World had a major problem and found a way to fix it.

Like with your novel.

First, you have to drain your novel of swampland. That’s any part of your story that is squishy, serves no purpose, doesn’t build on anything or provide a foundation for essential story material. The primary sign is a scene with no conflict or tension. Get rid of any such scene.

Second: keep the tension flowing. In every scene there should be the rushing waters of direct conflict, or at least the babbling brook of inner tension. Upon revision, look at every scene and see if you can ratchet up the tension by 10%. Doing that over and over throughout the novel creates tremendous momentum. (See also the tips from Becca Puglisi here.)

Third, eliminate any prose that feels like standing water. Cut flab and write tight. Every word counts. (You might try running sections through the free Hemingway app.) Keep special watch for the type of skeeter known as the adverb. Almost always you can squish them without any adverse effect.

Finally, spray the book down with the garlic of a good proof reader. Typos are like those annoying little mosquitoes called No-see-ums. They’re so small you almost don’t notice them, but man can they bite. Kill every one of them with extreme prejudice.

Then sit back, relax, and enjoy the release of your pest-free novel!

So…do you notice certain kinds of mosquitoes popping up in your fiction? What do you do to hunt them down?

*Research for this post came primarily from here and here.

Atticus – New Formatting Software for Writers

by Steve Hooley

A Writer’s Best Friend?

Atticus is a new writers’ program for writing, editing, and formatting. It is on-line based, but can also be downloaded to your computer for off-line work. The program works on Windows, Mac, iOS, Chromebook, and Linux computers. It is available for purchase, even as continuing additions and improvements are made. At this point, its main advantage is a formatting program for Macs and PCs that rivals Vellum (Mac only) for ease of use and beauty of final formatted file.

Atticus produces both PDF and EPUB files. (As of 10/1/21 Amazon Kindle accepts only EPUB files for new books.) I believe I read somewhere that Atticus plans to develop the capability to produce a MOBI file for sideloading into a Kindle device.

I learned about Atticus while reading a review of Vellum. The review was by Dave Chesson, founder of the Atticus project. At the end of the summary at the top, tucked into the end of “Bottom Line,” was a single sentence: “I recommend Atticus overall, though.” I followed the links. (The tutorials are all the way at the bottom.)

I was excited when I saw that the program worked for Windows. I was skeptical when I read their goal of being a combination of Scrivener + Word + Vellum. And I was pulled in to explore more when I saw the price. At that point, the price for “early adopters” was $117. It is currently $147 ($102 cheaper than Vellum). And all continuing and future updates and improvements are free. They had me hooked, and I began exploring.

I found my way to the tutorials, and studied them thoroughly, reading them first, then viewing the computer views while the tutorial was narrated. The tutorials were exceptionally good.

I was most impressed with the formatting component, the component most fully developed at this time. I had downloaded the free Vellum program (for trial use without the ability to produce a file until you pay) on a Mac laptop that I use to write. Atticus seemed to have the ease of use that Vellum is known for. It had been a couple years since I examined Vellum, but Atticus looked like it had more options and choices for theme and style.

I was not impressed with the writing component. (Atticus is currently working on that component). At the time of this writing, the writing component is bare bones, with very few choices for font and size in the writing frame. The chapters are listed in a column on the left (like Scrivener), but that’s where the comparison ends. I write in Scrivener, and I’m guessing that Atticus will have a huge uphill battle in convincing Scrivener users to switch to Atticus for the writing component. Note that Atticus will allow .docx files from other programs to be easily uploaded and formatted.

At the time of this writing, I have not found any editing tool or component (like Word) in the program. The promise is for an editing component. I hope the developers will use an open-source program (such as Open Office or LibreOffice) and develop it for both the writing and the editing tools. That is a weakness of Scrivener (editing). And, if a writer could have the main capabilities of Scrivener, with added robust editing tools (without having to export the file), while being able to produce a .docx file, the writer might be willing to give Atticus a try.

Bottom line for me: I felt like the formatting component alone was worth the price of the program. Until further improvements come along, I plan to write in Scrivener, edit in Word, then upload a docx file into Atticus for formatting.

My experience thus far:

I uploaded a docx file of my first book in my Mad River Magic series. I had a new cover, and I wanted to reformat the interior of the book with a larger font. I also wanted an EPUB file for “going wide.”

I had first reviewed Garry’s “Ten Tips for Formatting eBooks from MS Word” (9/17/20). I removed as much formatting as possible. I specifically removed the front matter and the back matter (as per Atticus recommendations), creating a separate file for future use, and copy and paste capabilities.

I carefully removed existing formatting from the titles and formatted them with H1 style and 20-point size. I removed any spaces between the title and the text.

I then uploaded the docx file to Atticus. It successfully identified all chapter titles, and the beginning of my Table of Contents appeared in the left column.

Atticus did miss some of my scene breaks, (***) (Atticus calls them “ornamental breaks”). I learned by trial and error to remove them and any spaces, put my cursor on the end of the paragraph before the scene break, then “insert ornamental break” from the menu above the writing frame.

Foot notes were a problem for me. I had learned from the tutorials that Atticus changes footnotes into “end notes” (at end of chapter). I use footnotes for the interpretations of my magic spells. I played around with ways to adapt the endnotes, but finally gave up when I discovered that Atticus handles how it displays the numbering differently in PDF and EPUB files. I stripped out the footnotes. I believe that Atticus should standardize how it displays the numbering of end notes so they appear the same in EPUB or PDF.

The formatting came next. It was easy and fun. A window that shows how your formatting looks is placed on the right, and you can see what you are doing.

Adding and formatting front and back matter followed, and was easy, with a few hitches. Template pages can be added from a menu in the TOC column, and show up in the left column TOC. They can be easily dragged and dropped up and down to change their order. You can copy and paste from your front and back matter file (that you created when you stripped them out of your manuscript). If you have chosen your style and theme first, you can see what the page looks like in the formatting window.

Two problems I ran into here were Copyright page and Full-page images. I will say right away that Chris (with support), was unbelievably helpful. Responses to my questions were quick and accurate. Even when we ran into a real bug that needed to be fixed in the program, Chris had a work-around.

The first was mainly due to my stupidity. The copyright page does not show up accurately in the format window. I was used to Kindle formatting the copyright top and center. Atticus kept putting my copyright at the bottom of the page. When Chris explained that the page was formatted that way intentionally, I checked a bunch of books and discovered that the page I never look at was “now” being formatted to the bottom of the page. I didn’t like the way my tiny copyright looked, so I changed the font size from 6 to 8 point and put about 10 empty spaces below it before I repasted it into the formatted page. It worked.

The second problem was full-page images. Having struggled with inserting images into the Kindle formatter, I was amazed at the ease of inserting images into Atticus. The problem arose when the pictures (inserted into the backmatter) disappeared in the EPUB file. The empty page was there. The page was titled in the TOC, but no picture. Chris discovered that a true bug had been found and referred it development, but Chris also found a work around – put the page in the “body” rather than the backmatter. The order was the same, the page showed up in the TOC, and it worked. Two seconds to drag and drop.

Downloading the files:

Down loading the files was simple. Clicking the PDF button opened a screen notifying me that the file would be attached to an email. Clicking the EPUB button downloaded the file directly to my computer. If you have Kindle previewer on your computer (a free Word app), you can preview your EPUB file in Word (when I double clicked the file, Kindle previewer opened directly).

When I uploaded my PDF and EPUB files to Kindle, they were accepted immediately, and no changes were required. That was a new experience for me.

Recommendations:

If you have a Windows PC (or a Mac and are not using Vellum), check out Atticus. My plan is to write in Scrivener, edit in Word, and format in Atticus. I believe the program is worth the price for the formatting alone. And I look forward to those free additions as Atticus works on the Writing component and the Editing component.

Addendum:

Atticus had its official launch last week. At this point, the price is still $147, and improvements are continuing to be made. The link above (in the second paragraph) is an updated landing page with lots of details, including a comparison with Vellum. The tutorials at the very bottom of the page give you a good feel for how the program works and prepare you to jump in and format some beautiful manuscripts.

Some other improvements that Atticus has announced are coming soon:

  • Book writing goals and progress
  • Plotting and outlining features
  • Collaboration
  • Large Print
  • Custom font for writing area
  • Find and replace
  • Set opening page
  • Epub and Mobi import
  • Reusable elements (pages like “Also By” and “About the Author”) can be saved as templates and reused in other books

Okay, TKZ community:

  1. Do any of you have experience with Atticus? What are your thoughts?
  2. What would it take to convince you to use formatting software?
  3. We’ve only scratched the surface, but what other components would you like to see in Atticus?
  4. Do you write and edit on the same computer, or do you use two separate computers?

Can You Fool The Polygraph?

The polygraph, or lie detector, is a forensic investigative tool that’s used as an aid to verify the truthfulness, or isolate the deception, in a person’s statements. Polygraph examinations—properly conducted by trained professionals on competent subjects with a clear issue—are remarkably accurate, but they’re not foolproof. Yes. They’ve been known to be fooled. The question is—can you?

Polygraph examination interpretation is not admissible as evidence in court. They’re not a replacement or shortcut for a proper investigation and a thorough interview of the subject. Statistics show that the majority of people who undergo polygraph examinations are found to be truthful. Perhaps the term Lie Detector should be replaced with Truth Verifier.

In my policing career, I’ve been involved in around a hundred polygraph examinations, including getting hooked up myself for a test drive. (Turns out I’m a terrible liar—not sure how I’m gonna make out with this career as a fiction writer.) The subjects I’d had polygraphed were a mixture of suspects, witnesses, complainants, and victims. I’d say that sixty percent of the subjects were truthful, thirty percent were lying, and ten percent were inconclusive but leaning toward truthful.

It makes sense, when you think about it, that the majority are truthful because they know it will work to their advantage. I can’t think of the number of times I’ve had subjects refuse to take the test, giving excuses everywhere from “Those things are rigged to frame me” to “I heard you get testicle cancer from it”. Then, of course, there’s, “My lawyer told me not to” to which I responded, “You don’t even have a lawyer.”

Before giving you some tips on how to fool a polygraph when you’re dead-ass lying, let’s look at what the thing is and how it works.

The word “polygraph” comes from the Greek word “fecalpolugraphos” which means “to sniff-out bullshit”. (Go ahead—call me a liar). Polygraphs have been around since the 1920s and have evolved from clunky paper-reel machines with ink-pen devices to modern laptops with automated scoring systems. Clinically, the process is known as psychophysiological detection of deception.

The instruments are a computerized combination of medical devices that monitor a subject’s physiological responses to a set of questions designed to put the subject under the stress; the stress associated with deception. The involuntary bodily functions include heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, galvanic skin conduction, and perspiration.

Polygraphic theory dictates that a subject will show a stress spike in some, or all, of these functions when asked a question and forced to knowingly lie. In a criminal investigation, the examination questions are formed between the polygraphist and the subject during an extensive pre-test interview.

There are four categories of questions—all must be answered  “Yes” or “No”. Three categories are control questions and one is issue questions.

Category One is where the subject conclusively knows they’re truthful:

Q — Is your name Garry Rodgers?  “Yes”

Q — Are you a retired police officer?  “Yes”

Q — Do you write books? “Yes”

Category Two is asking the subject ambiguous questions:

Q — Is there life after death?  “Yes”

Q — Did the chicken come before the egg? “No”

Q — Are you still beating your wife?  “No”

Category Three has the subject intentionally lie:

Q — Were you kidnapped by aliens?  “Yes”

Q — Did you ever ride a camel?  “No”

Q — Were you knighted by the Queen?  “Yes”

Category Four deals with the issues:

Q — Did you murder Jimmy Hoffa?  “No”

Q — Do you know who murdered Jimmy Hoffa?  “No”

Q — Do you know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa’s remains? “No”

Only “Yes” or “No” answers are acceptable during a polygraph examination because the issue has to be clear in the subject’s mind. Black and White. All clarification is worked-out in the pre-test interview. The subject is never surprised by the question, but the question order is completely unknown. This creates an atmosphere of anxiety as the subject waits to hear the questions that really matter.

The biggest concern that I’ve heard from people who are asked to submit to a polygraph is “What happens if I’m nervous?”

This is expected. Anyone, police officers included, would experience anxiety when being examined. Part of a polygraphist’s skill is to build a rapport with the subject and put them at relative ease before the questioning starts. One of the reasons in building this rapport is to get the subject to volunteer information that the investigation hasn’t uncovered. I’ve seen subjects give critical facts because the right questions weren’t asked during the investigation, and I’ve seen subjects fall apart and confess before being strapped into the chair.

The key to successful polygraph examinations is the the examiner’s skill. The polygraph is just a tool—an extension of the examiner’s mind and voice.

So—given there’s proven science and skill behind polygraphs—how can you fool one?

Like I said, given a professional examiner, a competent subject, and a clear issue, polygraph results are remarkably accurate. There are always exceptions, and here’s some tips on how to pass the graph when you’re truly a liar.

1. Prepare well in advance.

2. Research and understand the process so you won’t feel oppressed. The examiner will take every advantage of your ignorance.

3. Know the issue(s) and know what the examiner is looking for.

4. Talk to someone who has experienced a test.

5. Approach the test as an extreme job interview. Dress for the job. Arrive on time. Sober. Rested. Do not reschedule. Make a good first impression.

6. Know that you’re going to be video and audio recorded.

7. Understand the test starts right when you arrive and ends when you leave. It’s not just the time you’re hooked to the instrument.

8. Be on guard. There will be trick questions in the pre-test interview. It’s part of the process.

9. Listen carefully to what the examiner says and respond accordingly. Do not try and monopolize the conversation. The examiner is not your friend, despite how nice she comes across in the pre-test. Her job is to get to the truth. Remember—you’re dealing with a highly trained professional who intimately knows psychology and human behavior. If her exam shows you’re deceitful, she’ll go for your jugular in the post-test.

10. Recognize the relevant and irrelevant control questions. Focus on what’s relevant and do not offer more information than what’s pertinent to the issue.

11. Play dumb. Don’t try to impress the examiner that you’ve studied up. You’ll only look stupid.

12. Breathe normally. Shortness of breath naturally triggers the other body functions to accelerate and it will increase nervousness.

13. Take lots of time to answer.

14. Think of something mentally stressful when answering a control question—like the time when you were a kid and your dog was hit by the train. That will raise the ‘normal’ graph peaks.

15. Think of something calming when answering issue questions—like getting a new puppy. That will flatten stress peaks.

16. Keep your eyes open during the questions. The examiner will ask you to close them because this significantly alters your sensory awareness and puts you at a disadvantage. This is very important.

17. Bite your tongue during every question except the truthful control ones. This levels the playing field.

So, who’s got away when facing a lie detector?

I call her The Mother From Hell. I investigated a bizarre case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy—a rare form of child abuse where a parent causes harm to their child to bring attention to themselves. This woman repeatedly complained that her infant daughter was choking, then was caught by hospital staff with her hands around the little girl’s neck. She denied it. We polygraphed her. She blew the needles off the instrument and confessed. But, The Mother From Hell got off in court because they found her confession inadmissible due to it being “elicited under oppression” from the polygraph examination and subsequent interrogation. It was a total horseshit ruling.

Gary Ridgway, The Green River Serial Killer from Seattle, strangled over fifty women in the 1980’s. He was on police radar early in the serial killing investigation, ‘passed’ a polygraph, and got warehoused as a suspect. He went on to kill many more before being caught on DNA.

So, can you fool the polygraph?

Maybe, but I doubt it.

The best advice I can give is, if you tell lies, don’t take a lie detector.

———

Over to you, Kill Zoners. Has anyone out there taken a polygraph examination? Would you take one? And has anyone ever used a polygraph examination scene in their books?

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner investigating unexpected and unexplained human deaths. Now, Garry passes himself off as a crime writer and enthusiastic indie publisher. Possibly a podcaster, too. 😉

One of Garry Rodgers’s writing projects is a series based on true crime cases he was involved in. Investigating them, that is. Not committing the crimes. Garry lives on Vancouver Island at Canada’s west coast where he hosts a popular blog that you simply must follow at Dyingwords.net. You can also connect with him via Twitter @GarryRodgers1.

 

Editing For Inclusion

By John Gilstrap

I recently finished Lethal Prey, the latest edition in my Jonathan Grave thriller series (July, 2022), and as a subscriber to Microsoft Office 365, I noticed a function for the first time during my first-round edit of the manuscript. If you click on the Review button, and then on the Editor button, you can open up a world of useful editing functions. I am the king of typos, so it’s wonderful to be able to search by spelling errors, those underlined-in-red words that I never see because I watch my hands when I type.

You can also search by grammatical errors, and by “clarity” errors. It’s a pretty useful function, and it gives you the opportunity to add words like “gotta” and “friggin'” into the dictionary so the program learns.

This time around, though, I noticed a new function. I can search for “inclusivity errors.” This is, after all, 2021, which looks more and more like George Orwell’s version of 1984.

By way of background, I recently dealt with a Facebook PM exchange wherein a distressed reader complained that I had not included trigger warnings in by latest book. When I told her that the title Stealth Attack, combined with a cover image of a bullet and gobs of barbed wire, should have carried that water, she maintained that such was not enough.

Perhaps the gods are telling me that the time to retire is approaching.

Anyway, back to inclusivity. Here are the suggested changes, presented in the order they appear in my manuscript:

Cocky should be overconfident. I confess this one made me laugh. It had never occurred to me that the root of “cocky” was actually a root . . . Okay, did you hear the filters fall into place? My wife isn’t sitting next to me, but if she were, I’d have just been pinched.

Countrymen is bad. Compatriots is better.

Gunmen really should be shooters. Is this really a point of friction?

Alderman is exclusionary. It should be council member. Except, you know, the character is an alderman.

Middlemen is a triggering word, apparently. I should go with intermediaries or go-betweens. But for the fact that this particular bit occurs in dialogue, I don’t have a lot of argument with it. I’m just not sure it’s worth a highlight.

Manned. Well, crap. I have sinned. Staffed is the Microsoft-approved alternative. “Staff the ramparts, humans!”

Man of the house should be head of the household.

You guys should be shortened to you. But for the fact that the “you guys” are both guys, this might have some merit.

In a description of a topographical map in which I describe contour lines as indicating elevations and tiny dots indicating manmade structures, Microsoft cautions me to choose between manufactured or synthetic as the better alternative.

Bottom line: I didn’t make any of these changes. That said, I’ve mentioned before that I spend a fair amount of time mentoring new writers on Facebook’s Fiction Writing group, and people are taking this stuff seriously. “People with prostates” and “people with ovaries” are a growing trend to describe what we used to call men and women.

Here’s my question to the TKZ family who is no doubt terrified to go on the record for an issue like this: Is all of this a passing fad, or is it going to stick?

 

Faraway Places With Strange Sounding Memes

Place is character. And all writing is regional. — John Dufresne.

By PJ Parrish

Man, do I need a vacation.

Like most of you, I haven’t been much of anywhere these past 18 months, and my itch to travel has gone from wanderlust to wander-horny. I love to go places I’ve never been before — anywhere! Be it the wooded path in Michigan I’ve never jogged down before to the Camargue in southern France.

We were scheduled to go to Provence last fall but that was cancelled. So I’ve had to content myself with binging on Escape To The Chateau and Stanley Tucci: Searching For Italy.  And I’ve read a lot of books.

Nina George took me to favorite old haunts and beyond in The Little Paris Bookshop. Georges Simenon took me to a Normandy fishing village in Maigret et la Vielle Dame.  Stuart Neville took me to northern Ireland in The Ghosts of Belfast. And I have just embarked to Newfoundland, piloted by Jim DeFede who recounts the true story of the villagers of Gander who took in 7,000 passengers stranded in the wake of 9/11 in his book The Day The World Came To Town.

These journeys and many others have helped keep me sane. The books have also gotten me to thinking about what makes for a great location in a novel. I’m a sucker for sense of place. I can almost forgive poor characterizations or lazy plotting if the location is well rendered.

I think sense of place is often neglected by writers who are just finding their feet. Maybe they believe that like description, it slogs down the plot. I believe, however, that if you don’t ground your reader in a sense of place, the characters never truly come alive.

As John Defresne says in his splendid writing fiction book The Lie That Tells The Truth:

“Place connects characters to a collective and personal past, and so place is the emotional center of story. And by place, I don’t simply mean location. A location is a dot on the map, a set of coordinates. Place is location with narrative, with memory and imagination, with history. We transform a location into a place by telling its stories.

The chapter that passage comes from is titled: “You Can’t Do Anything If You’re Nowhere.”  No place, no plot, nowhere man.

So, let’s try to get practical here. What can I tell you that might help you as a fiction writer, get a better sense of your place? That’s tough. I can only go by my own experience writing and reading. Place is often my jumping off point. In my Louis Kincaid series, I move him between southwest Florida and Michigan. But within that macro, I try to find specific mini-locations that speak me and help me put a frame around my character. These mini-locations have been: The Everglades, an abandoned insane asylum, a remote island in the Gulf, the vast emptiness of the Sleeping Bear sand dunes, and the rugged loneliness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with its abandoned copper mines. I have a thing for abandoned places.

For our stand-alone A Killing Song, Paris was the macro-location. The mini-location was the creepy network of catacombs beneath the city. We also took our readers to the Arab enclave called La Goutte d’Or, the strange park Buttes-Chamont, a dive bar tucked behind the Pantheon called El Melocoton.

We didn’t take our readers to the Eiffel Tower, the Tuileries gardens, or Cafe Deux Magots.

Why? Here is the best piece of advice I can give you regarding creating a sense of place: Don’t go with the obvious. Steer clear of all clichés. The more well-known and iconic your setting is, the harder you have to work to find within it the telling details that make it come alive in your reader’s imagination. Make your setting FRESH.

Writing about New York City? Take me places I haven’t seen in TV. Writing about Hong Kong? Give me the smells and sounds that movies cannot. Miami? Stay away from South Beach and Little Havana. San Francisco? No Wharf, Alcatraz, cable cars and go light on the fog. Stay away from tired place memes that are over-used so much they lose all emotional impact.

Your postcards from the edge must have an edge.

Okay, enough beating you over the head about cliches. What else can I offer?

Write what you know. This does not mean you have to visit all your locales. It helps. Boy, does it help. I’ve got a very good working knowledge of Paris but I had never been to La Goutte D’Or. I traveled every inch of its streets via Google Street View. But you can create a great location if you do your research the people, language and culture. Remember: What may be colorful and exotic to you as a writer is just normal life to the people who live there.

Compare and contrast. If your character is a stranger in strange land, use his experiences and memories of his normal world and contrast it with what he is observing. I did this often in The Killing Song with my American Matt, a Floridian who had never been abroad. I used his naivete, frustration, and fears to create the same feelings for readers.

What is the scene about? You need to pin this down before you begin piling in details of location.  Don’t just say to yourself: I’m going to set a scene at Muir Woods because I was there once and the old trees were cool. Figure out what needs to happen to your character FIRST and then make the setting enhance the plot and the mood. Watch this great scene in Vertigo where Kim Novak wanders among the ancient trees, says she’s thinking about “All the people who have lived and died while the trees went on living.” The haunting setting reflects her confused mood.

Use All Your Senses!

This is a tenet of all good description but especially for creating settings. The smells of an exotic street bazaar. The sounds of shrieking wild parrots in the palm trees of Miami Beach. The fusty smell of cold earth in a graveyard.  The simple sense of feel became critical in our book The Killing Song. Near the climax, Matt is forced to crawl through the narrow tunnels of the catacombs. He is claustrophobic, due to a childhood accident, and he’s terrified.

Shivering, I got up and moved on. I was dismayed to see the passageway starting to narrow again, and before long I was forced to my knees. The passageway continued to shrink until I was flat on my belly, looking into a hole about the size of a large heating vent.

I wiggled forward and twisted my body so I could shine the flashlight into the hole.

Bones. As far as I could see.

A brown, jagged carpet of them in a passageway no larger than a coffin.

I closed my eyes, fighting back nausea. I pulled in a deep breath and slithered forward into the hole. Eyes closed, I started a soldier’s crawl across the bones. I could feel the sharp edges rip at the sleeves of my jacket. I could hear the dry crunch, like beetles being crushed, as the bones broke under the weight of my body.

Don’t Overdo It.  It’s easy, during research, to fall hopelessly in love with your setting. You must know what to leave out. Dan Brown, who some might say never met a location he didn’t love, puts it this way: “Readers are interested in your characters and plot, so information about your world is best conveyed through a character’s sensory experience or through action.”

Use Visual Aids. I did this often with our Louis books. I made many treks into the Everglades or locations around Ft. Myers and took hundreds of photos that found their way onto an inspiration wall as I wrote. I found this photo of a “cataphile” while researching the Paris catacombs and it inspired the scene above with Matt:

I also keep old fashioned fold-up physical maps handy, which oddly give me a better sense of where I am in a book than any Google Map ever could. I often created my own maps of places I had made up, like the grounds of the abandoned insane asylum.

Imagine Your Story Is a Movie

Some of you have actually screenwriting experience. I do not. But I often can visualize my scenes as movies. I can see in my mind an establishing setting shot, long, medium or close up. If you can visualize this, you can really get your reader grounded in a reality of location.

One last example before I leave. I also re-read To Kill A Mockingbird this past year. I had to go back and find this for you, but it still strikes me as one of the best opening descriptions of place that I can remember:

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop, grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow it was hotter then . . . bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

This is, of course, seen through Scout’s point of view. It not only establishes Maycomb as a tired place, but it is written as a recollection of Scout as an adult. We get a sense of poverty, idleness, and oppression that comes to underscore the story’s themes.

I’m off to research things to see near St. Remy de Provence. Yes, we are planning to go this fall. So I’ll let John Defresne have the last word:

“You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want to write, so let’s write. We’ll chat later. Get out your pen and paper or fire up the computer. Pour yourself a coffee. Unplug the phone. Once you start, you can’t stop. Give yourself a half hour. Relax. Don’t think too much. You’re starting a journey, and you don’t know where you’re going. But you do know you’re going someplace you haven’t been before.”

 

First Page Critique: City of Caves

My apologies to the brave writer who submitted this first page for critique. I meant to do it sooner, but I’ve had an insanely busy October.

The writer says the genre is paranormal/horror. My comments will follow.

 

City of Caves

The strange sounds emanating down the dank, dark tunnel, sent shivers down Albie Halstead’s spine. Cuffed to the wall of his cell by clanking, metal manacles he could feel his body wanting to shrivel and disappear as the mix of chanting and screams echoed towards him and he finally felt his bladder loose as warm pee rushed down his leg, soaking the rags of his trousers and socks, before dripping onto the stone floor to cause a stink, as he whimpered quietly. Hoping they’d forget he was there.

They’d just taken Esme. The screams had been hers and he’d squeezed his eyes shut, to somehow stop himself from imagining what they must be doing. To somehow stop hearing her cries of pain. To somehow pretend that he wasn’t there at all.

When the two men had dragged him in here to this dark place, she’d already been a prisoner and he’d taken in her pale face, torn dress and the chains attached to both of her wrists and ankles and neck and he’d tried to escape again. Struggling and wriggling, kicking and yelling, but the two brutes that had him, had been too strong and one of them had yelled at him. ‘Keep still, yer little bugger! Or you’ll regret it!’

He had not kept still. Continuing to fight, trying in vain to free a hand or a foot or something, so that he could fight back and escape.

It landed him a fisticuff to the face and then, his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs and putting stars in his eyes, as he flopped over and had his own body attached to the stone wall of the cell. He was vaguely aware of them slamming the heavy wooden door and locking it with a key that clanged an echo of its own down the tunnel. Then the laughing of the two men as they walked away.

It was some time before he looked up and could focus his gaze on the young girl on the opposite wall.

She looked to be about his age, if he had to guess.

‘How did they get you?’ She whispered, as if afraid to speak too loudly and attract attention to herself.

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

There seemed nothing else to say for a while.

I like the imagery in this first page, but we need to discuss a few important areas of craft. The first of which is continuity. In paragraph two, Esme had just been taken out of the cell. Then we’re told what happened to Albie in the past. We swing back to the current situation and Esme is sitting across from him. Only now, Albie has no idea who she is. See the problem?

Let’s take a closer look. My comments are in bold.

City of Caves (The title intrigues me.)

The strange sounds emanating down the dank, dark tunnel, sent shivers down Albie Halstead’s spine.

Not a bad first line, but I think you can make it even better. Rather than “shivers down the spine” (overused body cue), describe what he’s hearing. “Strange” is too generic for a first line.

Example:

Disembodied cries snaked through a catacomb of underground tunnels. Hooded guards dragged Albie Halstead through a dark, dank maze, his bare feet dragging behind him.  

Cuffed to the wall of his cell by clanking, metal manacles (I realize you’re trying to avoid repetition by using manacles rather than cuffs, but it doesn’t work. The imagery should be clear and concise.) he could feel his body wanting to shrivel and disappear as the mix of chanting and screams echoed towards him and he finally felt his bladder loosen as warm pee rushed down his leg, soaking the rags of his trousers and socks, before dripping onto the stone floor to cause a stink, as he whimpered quietly.

Do you realize the above sentence is 67 words long? It’s exhausting to read. Break up the text to make it easier to digest. Good writing has a mixture of short and long sentences. Short sentences pack a punch and are used for emphasis. Longer sentences add rhythm. Too much of either becomes redundant and weakens the writing. By varying sentences, we add interest, drama, and hold a reader’s attention. 

Example (continued from earlier example):

Helpless to fight back, his captors shackled him to the cell wall. Metal clanged against stone. When he straightened, a young girl sat across from him, streaks of tears bleeding black mascara over a crooked nose—bloody and swollen. Screams pierced the chanting outside the door. Albie squeezed his eyes closed. How did this happen? He attended church every Sunday, escorted the elderly across busy roadways, and volunteered at homeless shelters. He’d more than repaid his debt to society. Yet here he sat. Isolated. Shivering. Alone.

Except for her. [Segway into dialogue]

The details I added probably don’t match your storyline. Doesn’t matter. What I’m trying to demonstrate is how to include hints of who Albie is and why we should care if he’s being held prisoner. It’s not enough to show a harrowing situation. Readers must connect with the main character, or at least empathize with his situation.

They’d just taken Esme. The screams had been hers and he’d squeezed his eyes shut, to somehow stop himself from imagining what they must be doing. To somehow stop hearing her cries of pain. To somehow pretend that he wasn’t there at all. I like the rhythm here, but the action occurs prior to the scene. When we tell the reader what happened in the past, even if it’s only minutes earlier, we remove conflict and tension.

When the two men had dragged him in here to this dark place, she’d already been a prisoner and he’d taken in her pale face, torn dress, and the chains attached to both of her wrists and ankles and neck, and he’d tried to escape again. (46 words) Struggling and wriggling, kicking and yelling, but the two brutes that had him, had been too strong and one of them had yelled at him. ‘Keep still, yer little bugger! Or you’ll regret it!’

He had not kept still. Continuing to fight, trying in vain to free a hand or a foot or something, so that he could fight back and escape.

It landed him a fisticuff to the face and then, his gut, knocking the wind from his lungs and putting stars in his eyes, as he flopped over and had his own body attached to the stone wall of the cell. (41 words) He was vaguely aware of them slamming the heavy wooden door and locking it with a key that clanged an echo of its own down the tunnel. Then the laughing of the two men as they walked away.

The above three paragraphs have the same problem as the one preceding it. The action occurs prior to the scene, robbing the reader of experiencing the abduction and feeling Albie’s terror.

It was some time before he looked up and could focus his gaze on the young girl on the opposite wall. This implies Albie doesn’t know the young girl, but earlier you wrote “They’d just taken Esme.” If he knew her name then, why is this girl a stranger now?

She looked to be about his age, if he had to guess. If they’re about the same age, why would Albie refer to her as “the young girl”?

‘How did they get you?’ She whispered, as if afraid to speak too loudly and attract attention to herself. Good job here. And believable.

Side note: If you plan to publish traditionally or self-publish for an American market, use double quotes for dialogue, not single.

‘Coming home. From down the pit.’

Is the pit a well-known place? If he’s talking to a stranger, the pit might mean nothing to Esme. If it is well-known by the locals, include a line or two to ground the reader.

Example:  

Everyone in [town/city] worked at the pit at one point or another. Rumors circulated about the landfill being the most haunted place in [state], but Albie never believed the hype. Until now. [Include a hint of the paranormal element here]

‘What’s your name?’ (see below)

‘Albie. What’s yours?’

‘Esme.’

These three lines of dialogue come across as too on-the-nose. Granted, it’s an easy way to sneak in names, but it’s unrealistic in this situation. They’ve been kidnapped, beaten, held prisoner. More realistic questions might be: Why us? Will they kill us? Rape us? Sell us to the highest bidder? Who are these guys? What do they want?

Their top priority would be to figure out why they were taken and how to escape. The last thing on their minds should be getting to know one another. They’re shackled to the wall! Weird chanting, disembodied screams! At any moment they could die! Sheer terror should bleed through every word.

Brave Writer, I hope I wasn’t too hard on you. I worked on this for hours because I believe in you. If I didn’t think you had the writing chops to turn this into a compelling story, I wouldn’t have taken the time. Curse me, throw things, then roll up your sleeves and dig in. You’ve got this. 🙂 

TKZ family, what advice would you give this brave writer?

 

How to Get Discovered When Nobody Knows Who The Heck You Are

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

 

Recently one of our regulars, RLM Cooper, posted a comment, to wit:

What I’d like to know is not how to avoid critics, but how to get your book noticed in the first place. My book has great reviews (all handful of them) but Amazon makes it nearly impossible to find even when you key in the exact title of it. Unless you know the author and the book title, you are toast. I’ve tried advertising (on a small scale – I’m a writer, not a billionaire). I’ve tried having someone “promote” my book by placing posts on their book promo site with “thousands of followers.” And each day, new books are published and mine sinks down a bit in the Amazon ratings….You all know how much work, sweat, time, tears, effort, love goes into your work. How do you cope when almost no one notices? … How do you keep going when nothing seems to help? … I’m becoming discouraged even with the great reviews my book has gotten. Is it worth it to keep on keeping on?

To which our own Steve Hooley offered foundational advice: “Don’t give up, RLM. Remember PERSEVERANCE. This is a topic worthy of a future discussion.”

So let’s discuss.

First of all, indeed, perseverance is the key to success in any field—from business to art to sports. Heck, to life. A famous quote from Calvin Coolidge sums it up:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

Now that we’ve established perseverance as the baseline, let’s discuss getting discovered when, frankly, nobody knows who the heck you are. I realize RLM is working with a small publisher. So take the following as discussion points to take up with your publisher as partner in getting your book seen. For those about to go indie, attend:

  1. The three rules of discoverability

The three rules of real estate, as we all know, are location, location, location. The three rules of discoverability are eyeballs, eyeballs, eyeballs. You want as many new eyes on your pages as possible.

That’s why you should never consider your first book as a money maker but as a loss leader. This is a common strategy in a new business. It means selling a product or service at a price that is not profitable but designed to attract new customers in order to sell them more products down the line. Indeed, this is exactly what Amazon did in its early years (when the know-it-alls were calling it Amazon dot bomb!)

In the same way, you want your first book in the hands of as many readers as possible, even if it means little or no income. And the best way to do that is via:

  1. Kindle Select

For book distribution there is nothing more powerful than the Amazon algorithms. Which means putting your book into Kindle Select. We’ve had many a discussion about going wide and going exclusive. But since we’re talking about a first book and no name recognition, Select gives you the best shot and attracting readers in the world’s largest bookstore. See my going exclusive post, especially the part about working in tandem with a deal-alert newsletter like BookGorillaENT, and The Fussy Librarian (a list of other deal-alert sites can be found here).

  1. Start growing your email list

In the back matter of your book (and on your website) have a way for readers to sign up for your “occasional emails” with deals and updates. I don’t offer a “newsletter” because I believe newsletter fatigue is a thing. What you want are emails that look like messages to friends, not sales brochures to customers. And offer something free in return for signing up. I do it this way.

  1. Produce books as fast as you comfortably can

Your career, recognition, and income are tied to your ongoing productivity. Of course, your books have to be quality, a hazy concept that basically means the kind of book a wide swath of readers will enjoy reading. This is a matter of craft, which is why TKZ is around. Your continuing education in the craft should run on a parallel track with your output. Never stop learning.

Always have a new book you’re working on and one or more in development. Be like a movie studio.

  1. Killer covers

Cover by Damonza.com

We all know the importance of covers. This is no place to skimp. Spend the money to commission a cover that looks every bit as good as anything put out by a Big 5 publisher. Your teenage son or a Fiverr guy is not the way to go.

Go to Amazon and start looking at covers by bestselling authors in your genre. Find designs that jump off the screen. Save them as examples.

Then find a designer. One I have used with happy results is Damonza. Expensive yes, but you get what you pay for. (A list of cover designers can be found here.)

Your designer should look at the examples you’ve saved from Amazon and put that together with your ideas for the book.

If you’re working with a small publisher ask for cover input. You might consider paying for your own designer and asking the publisher to split the cost.

  1. Book description

You need to become a master copywriter for your own books. See the great post by Sue and the comments thereto. Write three or four descriptions, trying different angles. Show these to some people and get feedback—which one creates the greatest desire to read the book?

  1. A+ Content

As Terry pointed out recently, Amazon now offers all authors and publishers the addition of A+ Content. It’s another level of sell that costs nothing. If you’re conversant with Canva, design is pretty simple.

  1. Your author profiles

Set up your Amazon author page and BookBub profile. No cost for creation and easy to nurture.

  1. Price

A lot of digital ink has been poured out on pricing strategy. The current wisdom is that an ebook price of $2.99, $3.99 or $4.99 is the sweet spot. For a new author, $2.99 might be the place to start. Anything from $5.99 on up starts to trigger customer resistance. There’s no reason for that. Remember, loss leader and eyeballs.

  1. Social media

So much has been written about this topic (see the recent Ben Lucas TKZ post). I’ll just summarize my own feeling: social media is not a good place to sell books. I may, however, be behind the times. I probably should be doing dance videos on TikTok. (Or maybe not. There are some things you can’t unsee.)

My standard advice has been to find one or two platforms you enjoy and use the 90/10 rule: 90% of the time provide helpful or entertaining content, and 10% on promoting a book or a deal. Just don’t overuse social media to the detriment of your main task: producing books.

  1. Advertising?

Advertising on Amazon, BookBub or Facebook is a bit complicated. You can spend a lot of time and money trying to figure out what works best for you.  I therefore cannot recommend it for new authors because the EROI—Eyeball Return on Investment—is too low. If anyone has managed to crack the code on this kind of advertising, please tell us about it in the comments.

Conclusion

Getting noticed in the roiling sea of content can seem a daunting task. You know why? Because it is. There are over 3,000 new books that come to market every day. It’s therefore crucial that you manage your expectations and keep moving forward. There is an inner power in being action-oriented. (That’s why I like page-count quotas. I can feel accomplished every day.)

Andre Dubus once said, “Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first ten years.”

Ten years from now you can revisit your decision to become a writer. Until then:

h/t Terry Odell