A Different Conference Experience

A Different Conference Experience
Terry Odell

If all has gone well, when you’re reading this, I should have had my first cataract surgery yesterday, so forgive me if I don’t respond to comments. Surgery went very well, so I’m back at the computer.

I attended the Flathead River Writers Conference, where I had the pleasure of meeting fellow TKZ blogger, Debbie Burke. In her post yesterday, she said I’d have pictures to share, so here are a few to start.

Middle Ford of the Flathead River flowing through Glacier National Park

Lake McDonald

I’ll stick in a few more throughout the post.

This was a very different kind of conference for me. My decision to attend was to get away for a few days, meet some new people, and, most importantly, recharge the batteries. I’ve always attended genre-based conferences, and most have been much larger. This one (under 100 attendees) didn’t hit my overload button. Also, to fulfill the battery recharging goal, I arrived two days prior to the opening session. Debbie was generous enough to play tour guide, so I got to see a lot of the area. Including, I must add, places Debbie used in her books. An added perk: she knows where the best rest stops are.

A few highlights for me from the sessions. (Let me point out, this was not a ‘business networking venture’ for me.) John Gilstrap swears that all of the business takes place at the bar. He’d have been disappointed here, because the conference hotel didn’t have a bar. Or a restaurant.

Trail in Glacier Park

McDonald Falls

One of the “speakers” Dr. Erika Putnam, a chiropractor/yoga instructor, had everyone participating in stretches and poses designed to counteract the “all day in front of a keyboard” neck, shoulder, and back stiffness. Another was the Montana Poet Laureate, Chris La Tray, a member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, who gave poignant yet very entertaining talks.

Another highlight was when the two agents in attendance, Zach Honey and Julie Stevenson did cold reads of the first page of anonymously submitted manuscripts. (Sound familiar?) The submissions were read aloud by conference staff, although the agents had hard copies so they could read along.

Honey focuses on representing thrillers, and Stevenson wants literary fiction. Most of the submissions leaned toward the literary end of the spectrum, and I was left cold. I could hear JSB saying “Nothing’s Happening!” Pretty Prose doesn’t do it for me. Their comments were kept short and superficial, but there were one or two submissions they thought they’d want to see more of. I’m sure those authors were thrilled.

Totem at Lake McDonald Lodge

Author Mark Sullivan’s talk on day one about his path to success was interesting, but it was his talk on day two that gave me my biggest takeaway. He spoke of the connection between the body and the mind. He suggested that if you’re having trouble finding the emotional center of your character, picture what that character’s body position would be, then get into it yourself. Something to try, for sure.

He did something else I’ve never seen at any other conferences, which was to lead the group in a meditation session. Sue Coletta talked about breathing, and we did similar  exercises. He also addressed something that resonated with me. “Too much to do” anxiety. Sullivan pointed out there’s no point in getting upset about something that happened in the past. It’s over and done. Likewise, you can’t fret about what’s in the future. You can only live in the “now.” Do one thing at a time, and wipe out the rest. Looking at a ‘to do’ list of 20 items is daunting. Don’t think about the 20, deal with the one.

This suggestion came in handy when I arrived home and considered everything I had to do. There were the household tasks, the ‘catch up’ tasks, and the ‘get everything done before my cataract surgery’ tasks. Instead of freaking out, I was able to focus on one thing at a time, and the usual knotted stomach wasn’t an issue.

He left us with these words: The universe is in a state of expansion. If you’re in a state of retraction, you’re fighting the universe. Don’t get involved with yourself.

Playing with Textures – Glacier Park

What about you, TKZers? Do you ever need to get away and do something a little different? Was it worth it?

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

With a Little Help from My Friends

By Debbie Burke





All right, so that’s not news to anyone at TKZ.

Truth is we’d rather parade naked down the mall than sit at a lonely table full of books in front of Barnes & Noble, directing people to the restroom.

But we gotta do it sometimes if we want to sell books.

One way to make promotion less painful is to join with other authors.


  1. Misery loves company (just kidding!).
  2. Being in front an audience by yourself is scary. Being in front of audience with colleagues is easier.
  3. A solo appearance means you carry 100% of the responsibility to entertain the audience. Join with other authors and that splits the responsibility up.
  4. More authors draw more interest…unless you’re Lee Child, who doesn’t need help.


  1. Find other authors.

Invite one to three other authors in your area to join you either in person or by zoom. A total of three or four offers good variety while giving everyone a chance to talk. More than that is too crowded and cumbersome.

  1. Decide on a genre and theme.

Montana authors Leslie Budewitz, Christine Carbo, Debbie Burke, Mark Leichliter

My recent event focused on crime fiction, combining four subgenres: cozy mystery (Leslie Budewitz), small town police procedural (Mark Leichliter), police procedural in a national park (Christine Carbo), and thriller (Debbie Burke). The title was “Murder, Inc. – How Montana authors kill people…on the page.”

Include variety in subgenres so there aren’t two cat cozy authors competing with each other.

For instance, a children’s literature gathering could feature one author who writes picture books, one middle grade, and one young adult, reaching three different audiences.

  1. Set up a venue.

Weather permitting, many people feel more comfortable outdoors these days. Depending on where you live, indoor settings may or may not be available.

I’ve been lucky to be hosted twice by a dream open-air location in Bigfork, Montana, right beside the Swan River. Lake Baked Bakery/Riverview Bar has a large grassy area with tables and chairs.

Lake Baked Bakery/River View Bar, Bigfork, Montana

Many cafes, coffee houses, brew pubs, and independent bookstores are struggling financially due to the pandemic. The ones I’ve approached are enthusiastic about hosting activities that draw more customers.

Independent-living senior communities are a good bet to find  many avid readers. So are schools, community colleges, and libraries.

  1. Decide on a format.

A panel discussion with Q&A from the audience works well. Designate one person as moderator. S/he has a list of prepared questions and keeps the discussion moving.

If you decide to do open readings, they should be short—no more than five minutes per person, broken up with discussion and questions between authors.

  1. Publicize the event.

Here’s where having friends is a real force multiplier. Each author has their own blog and email list to disseminate info about the appearance. Each has their own social media followers. If there are four participants, that’s four times the number of contacts than if you did it by yourself.

Press releases to newspapers/radio are more likely to be noticed if there are three or four authors appearing together. Then it becomes an event of interest to the community instead of a lonely author crying in the wilderness.

The venue may have a Facebook page or other outlet where they publicize events. Ask them to include yours. Again, that reaches a wider, different demographic than simply reading fans.

Supplement these efforts with posters around the area and you should have a respectable turnout.

  1. Set up and logistics.

Scope out the venue before the event. Find out what equipment, chairs, tables, etc. they can provide and what you need to bring yourselves.

You need sound equipment–an amplifier and at least two mics for four people. If the venue doesn’t have that, you may know someone who will let you use their equipment. If not, you may need to rent it.

Leslie Budewitz is my frequent partner-in-crime for live presentations. Her husband Don is a musician and he graciously sets up and runs his equipment for us. I always buy a drink and snack for great volunteer helpers like him.

If you need Power Point capability for slide shows, verify that the venue’s system is compatible with yours. Sometimes you can put a thumb drive in their computer. Other times, it’s better to bring your own computer but check that connecting cords work.

Always, always, always test video and audio beforehand. Glitches are uncomfortable not only for you but your audience as well.

Depending on the venue, if there’s a stage, you can sit on chairs/bar stools. Or you may prefer to stand/walk around as you talk.

Set the tone. If possible, arrange the audience seating to be comfortable and relaxed. Rows of chairs are not as friendly as groupings like in a café or bar.

  1. The day of the event.

Arrive at least a half hour early to set up/test equipment. Always, always, always test sound equipment before the presentation.

If the venue serves refreshments, buy some and encourage others. The business is supporting you to improve their bottom line. The higher their sales, the more likely they’ll invite you back again. Thank your host and the servers and tip generously.

During the discussion, encourage the audience to ask questions. The more interaction with them, the better.

Beforehand, set up your own book table.

Bring pens, business cards, and swag.

Bring a signup sheet for your mailing list.

Bring change for cash purchases.

If you use a credit card reader, make sure you can log into the venue’s wi-fi.

Oh yeah, don’t forget to bring your books!

Consider holding a drawing or contest with your book as the prize. People love to win free stuff.


Photo credit: Kay Bjork

Take a deep breath and try to relax. Initially, you may feel like you’re going to an IRS audit but you’re not.

The audience came because they’re interested in reading. They want to learn more about you as authors and your books. Make it enjoyable for them and yourself.

We get by with a little help from our friends. 


 TKZers: Have you done live appearances? What tips can you offer?

If you haven’t yet done a live appearance, what is holding you back?



Debbie Burke enjoys meeting readers in person or by Zoom. To set up an appearance, please click on “Request a TKZ speaker” at the top of the page.

Here is her series sales link.

Writing in a Point of View Not Your Own

by James Scott Bell

Last week I wrote about hardboiled fiction and the pedigree that began with a writer named Carroll John Daly. I focused on the First-Person PI narrator.

But a hardboiled series can be told in Third Person, too. Frederick Nebel wrote a hugely popular series for Black Mask featuring police captain Steve MacBride and a reporter named Kennedy. These were done in Third-Person POV. More currently there’s a fellow named Gilstrap who writes about a guy named Grave in Third Person. Likewise Coletta’s Sheriff Niko Quintano, Langley-Hawthorne’s Ursula Marlow, Odell’s Chief of Police Gordon Hepler, Viets’s Helen Hawthorne, and Burke’s Tawny Lindholm

We’ll get to P. J. Parrish in a bit.

So what POV did I choose for my series about a crime-fighting nun, Sister Justicia Marie of the Sisters of Perpetual Justice?

I’ve written here before about the genesis of this character. How my son, who loves plays on words, said I should write about a nun who fights crime with martial arts skills. “You could call it Force of Habit.”

He smiled. I smiled. And then I said, “I think I’ll do it.”

“I was only kidding,” my son said.

“It’s a great concept,” I said. “Original, great title, and I think I can do something with it.”

That was back in 2012. Since that first novelette (about 16k words), four more followed, and quite to my delight has built a loyal following.

Now I’ve put the whole series in one collection, and added a sixth, never-before-published novelette. FORCE OF HABIT: THE COMPLETE SERIES is up for pre-pub. If you reserve your copy now you’ll lock in the $2.99 deal price (and this puppy is 90k words worth of action) before it goes to the regular price of $4.99. The titles are:






And for the first time anywhere: FORCE OF HABIT 6: NUN TOO SOON

Allow me just a few horn toots from verified reviews:

“This first book was so good that within minutes of reading it, I downloaded book two.”

“Action packed with both internal and external conflict, I was riveted the whole way through.”

“Sister Justicia is kicking butt and taking names! She knows how to clean up L.A. but good!”

“James Scott Bell seems to be able to put more events in a 50 page novella than you’re likely to find in some 300 page novels.”

“Highest possible recommendation! Five Stars!”

“Honestly, they need to make a TV series about Sister J.”

Now, back to the choice of POV. Having never been a nun…or a woman…I gravitated toward Third Person from the jump. That does not mean I couldn’t take a stab at First Person. Unlike some of the “wisdom” of the age, I say let a writer do what he or she will and let the market decide. I just felt more comfortable in Third.

So what about the nun-woman part? Well, friends, there’s a little thing I like to call RESEARCH. It really works! I have a friend who is a former nun, who helped me tremendously with this series. I also made contact with some Benedictine nuns online for further insight.

As for the woman part, I have the greatest research assistant of all—Mrs. B. She reads all my stuff before anyone else, and offers me invaluable editorial advice.

[And if I may be allowed a side note: Today marks the 40th anniversary of the best decision I ever made. It involved the lovely Cindy, a minister, a packed church, and me.]

Once again, here’s the link for the deal pre-order.

For those of you outside Amazon U.S., you can open to your Amazon site and plug this into the search box: B091DRDWRJ

I will note that Michael Connelly is currently writing a series from a female Pacific Islander POV. And our own Mr. Gilstrap’s new series stars a U.S. Congresswoman who is also a single mom, both of which (if my research is accurate) John has never been.

And leave us not forget the sisters P. J. Parrish writing from the POV of one Louis Kincaid.

It can be done!

Do you agree? 

What a Critique Group Can…and Cannot…Do For You

Shutterstock photo purchased by Kathryn Lilley TKZ

Shutterstock photo purchased by Kathryn Lilley TKZ

Today, we’re pleased to welcome editor and writer Debbie Burke back to TKZ.

by Debbie Burke

Critique groups are invaluable, if not essential, to the serious author. But they may not provide all the answers a writer needs. First, though, let’s talk about their benefits.

What are critique group strengths?    

Support – A CG provides much-needed camaraderie in this oft-lonely business. They throw us a lifeline when we get discouraged, nag us when we’re slacking off, and lend a shoulder to cry on when we receive rejections. They serve as our cheerleaders, therapists, and comrades in the trenches. They’re the first ones to open champagne for our successes. CG members are not only writing colleagues, they often become close friends. We develop a high level of trust and respect for each other, both professionally and personally.

Brainstorming – Here, critique groups really shine. If two heads are better than one, six or eight heads are exponentially better at throwing out suggestions. Feeding off each others energies and ideas, CGs solve many dilemmas that stymy a writer. I can’t count the number of dead ends CGs helped me work through.

Accountability – CGs exert pressure, either subtle or overt, to produce a certain number of pages for each session. They act as a de facto deadline for writers who don’t yet have an editor or agent breathing down their neck. If you show up empty-handed, you’re not meeting your obligation. Dozens of times, I’ve heard writers say, “I wouldn’t have written anything this week, except I needed to submit to the group.”

What are some CG limitations?

Diagnosis – CGs generally do a good job of homing in on a manuscript’s weak spots. If two or more people mark the same passage, you should pay attention. But while they recognize there is a problem, they can’t always diagnose exactly what it is or how to fix it. If CG suggestions don’t help enough, consultation with a developmental editor may be worthwhile.

Overlapping relationships – CG friendships may cloud our judgment of the story. A member of my group, psychologist Ann Minnett (author of Burden of Breath and Serita’s Shelf Life) recently offered a perceptive observation: “When I read A’s chapter, I hear her voice and accent. When I read B’s chapter, I think of her sense of humor, and can’t help but laugh.”

Which made me wonder…Does your CG like your story or do they like you?

When you’re face-to-face with your friends, you hear her charming British accent, see his playful wink. However, when a book is published, most readers will never meet the author, meaning the words must shoulder all the work. They need to be effective by themselves, without explanation or amplification.

Here is where online CGs might give a clearer, more “book-like” perspective. Without personal, visual, or auditory cues, their effort focuses entirely on the words.

Time constraints – My CG meets every two weeks, submitting 15-20 pages per session. At that rate, reviewing a novel-length manuscript takes six months to a year. By the time the group reaches the climactic chapter on page 365, no one remembers a subtle, but important, clue on page 48 that set up the surprise twist. This piecemeal approach is the most vexing limitation I’ve experienced with CGs.

Micro vs. Macro View – A corollary to the time constraint problem is the micro view by a CG. They examine your 20 pages per week and help polish each passage till it shines. When you string all these perfect chapters together, the resulting book should be excellent. Right?

Not necessarily. Close examination under the CG microscope may not adequately address global issues of plot development, pace, and momentum that require a macro view from an airplane.

At this point, beta readers or a professional editor may be more useful than a CG to determine how well the overall scope of your novel works.

Objectivity – Your CG works for months or years on a manuscript. They are mindful of the original draft and every subsequent rewrite. They help you build the story and become almost as vested as you are. But, like you, they’ve grown too close to the novel. Even if they beta-read the whole book, they may subconsciously insert things from earlier drafts that you later cut. They might not realize the missing part is missing.

At what point do you need to move beyond the critique group?

In my experience, CGs are probably most helpful for a work in progress. They provide invaluable suggestions to get you out of corners. They catch typos, misspellings, word choice goofs, and awkward phrasing. They tell you if characters are flat and boring or ridiculously over-the-top. They pull you out of the ditch and keep you moving forward.

After your CG has reviewed at least one complete draft, and you’ve incorporated their feedback, suggestions, and polishing, now it’s time to find beta readers and/or a professional editor. In fairness, you should submit a draft that’s as clean and error-free as possible. Beta readers or editors shouldn’t spend time line-editing when what you’re really seeking is the Big Picture. The cleaner the draft, the more their efforts can be focused on important issues.

Depending on how extensive the rewrite needs to be, you may want to run the revision draft through your CG one more time to ensure you’ve achieved improvements suggested by betas and/or editors.

Critique groups can be a writer’s best friend. By understanding both their strengths and limitations, you’ll receive maximum benefit from them.

How about you, TKZers? What is most helpful about your critique group?  What are the biggest limitations?

IMG_2585(1)Debbie Burke has participated in critique groups for more than twenty-five years. She credits critique buddies with keeping her sane (almost).