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The Writer's Mailbag: Installment #351

We Hit Sixty Degrees

Not terribly earth-shaking news, I know, but last week we actually hit the magical temperature of sixty degrees. Sure, it was just one day and sure, the rains and cooler temperatures are back now, but for one day, we in the Pacific Northwest were allowed to walk outside without wearing multiple layers and without bowing our heads into the rain.

For one day we had hope that one day, in the not-so-distant future, spring would arrive full-force. For one day, we were allowed to dream of gardening and sipping coffee on the porch, of mornings not dominated by building fires in woodstoves and drying out raingear.

For one day, we had a vision of what a brighter future would look like, which is a bit of a metaphor about the pandemic as the vaccines are produced and more and more citizens receive them, hope that one day, soon, we can find normalcy and go about a day without worrying about an invisible foe.


I hope this finds you all well. Let’s see what the Mailbag has for us this week.

The Mail Room!

The Mail Room!

Table of Contents

From Brenda: “I do have a question I'm hoping you can help me with. I recently submitted a book length version of my poetry to a no fee contest. I had to submit a table of contents inside the word document. I had loads of trouble figuring this one out. I must admit I just found a way to make it work, but it wasn't the correct way. Is there a simple way to do this? One that is not too complicated to understand. Thanks in advance if you can show me how to accomplish this one.”

Brenda, one of our group, Linda, sent me the answer to this before I even had time to look it up. Here’s what she said:

“Bill, Brenda asked about inserting a table of contents. Here's how it works in Microsoft Word:

“When you prepare your document use “Styles” (on the Home tab) to tag your headings, titles, and subtitles

“When done click on “References” tab

“Select “Table of Contents”

So there you go, Brenda, all thanks going to Linda on this one.

Reading Comments

From Pamela: “Reading all the articles and commenting can be time consuming. I try to comment on those people who have been supportive of me first. Do you go back and see what people have written about your comments?”

Pamela no, not as a general rule. I simply don’t have the time to do that. I wish I had the time. I really do, because I enjoy the interaction with my writer friends, but once I comment on a comment, I’m done with it.

Thoughts on Publishing

From Ann: “Great mailbag; it seems like everyone is publishing or working towards it. That encourages me too but I'm still reticent about taking that step. I've no idea how much it's going to cost me and I don't want to waste money on picking the wrong way to do it. I know I've asked you for advice on this already but I wanted to ask you what you think of 'The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook' as a publisher/self-publishing advisor. I know it has a different title in the US but I think you know what I mean. I didn't realise until last week that they covered all that angle, as well as listing publishers etc. It's changed quite a bit lately, but then maybe the British one is different. Does that make sense?”

Here in the U.S. we have “The Writer’s Market,” same thing basically, and I think it is invaluable as a resource for those looking to go the traditional publishing route rather than self-publishing. Of course, self-publishing wouldn’t cost you a penny (or whatever monetary unit you wish), but you might, and probably would, spend a little money on marketing. If you found a traditional publisher, well, it just depends about residual costs. But you asked about the publication, and I think it is a very handy resource well-worth purchasing.

I’ll stop there. If you have a follow-up question, let me know.

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All self-published through Amazon

All self-published through Amazon

Not a Normal Question

From Venkatachari M: “Now, I have a question for you. It is not related to writing, though. It relates to our present living norms. How many times do you wash your hands in a day? Do you wash whenever you touch a grocery pack, etc? It is a very odd question. Isn't it?”

Your question made me smile, Venkatachari M. Thank you for that smile.

I’m terrible about washing my hands. I suppose, if I worked a retail job, I would be much better, but I don’t and I am not. I play the odds regarding the virus. I wear a mask religiously. I keep six feet away from others at all times. But the odds of catching this virus by touching something are so remote, well, I play the odds.

So how many times do I wash my hands daily? Probably three on average, maybe five because I do dishes a couple times a day – let’s say five times each day and be done with it.

Odd question? Maybe, but I liked it.

Clues in a Mystery

From Jen: “What’s the secret to writing clues in a mystery? I know you do it with your Shadow series. Are there guidelines to doing it? Are there rules involved? How many clues are enough?”

Jen, I feel like this is a topic which deserves its own book.

There are three types of clues in a mystery novel: physical, verbal, and thematic. The first two should be obvious. Thematic clues are like the butler always does the bad deed, or people wearing black are always bad people, that sort of thing.

Clues can help guide the reader to the main discovery, or they can be misleading, a writer’s way of confusing the reader so the real identity of the bad guy isn’t discovered until late in the novel.

How many clues should you have in a novel? I don’t think there is a rule regarding the number. Have fun with it. I love leaving clues throughout a novel, some are good clues, some are misleading. I think that’s one reason I enjoy writing mystery thrillers so much, I get to mess with the readers a little.

Anyway, I hope that helped you.

Clue can lead you down the right path, or the wrong path.

Clue can lead you down the right path, or the wrong path.


I was talking to a former student a few weeks ago. She is now forty-five years old, which makes me feel terribly old, and she is a single mother of two young ones. She’s had a tough time of it. Her “men chooser” is broken, she keeps finding men who abuse her, she’s down on herself something big time. She reached out to me because, well, she’s having trouble with her drinking, and she knows I have a history with alcoholism. So, I’ve been a lifeline for her lately, a text every night, a text every morning, meet her once a week, build up her self-esteem, that sort of thing, letting her know that she has value and self-worth, and letting her know someone gives a shit about her.

We all need hope and, sometimes, we need a hand-up, out of the muck, so that hope is visible.

It takes so very little effort to make a difference in someone’s life.

I will leave you with that thought.

Have a fabulous week, my friends. If you have a question for the Mailbag, drop it in the comments below, or email it to me at

2021 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)

“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”


Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 14, 2021:

Thank you MG! Greatly appreciated!

Bill Holland (author) from Olympia, WA on March 13, 2021:

Thank you so much, Denise. I think the deep thinking comes from being so shy and alone as a child. I spent a lot of time inside my head. :) Now I need to expel it into articles.