Playing It by Ear

Photo by Dragne Marius courtesy

I am going to be uncharacteristically brief today. I experienced two weeks ago the return of what seems to be a chronic viral ear infection which causes me 1) occasional balance problems 2) frequent hearing difficulties and 3) sudden sharp pains in my left ear. With regard to 3), I thought that the etiology might be my guardian angel jabbing me when I had impure thoughts, but then I realized that a) I would be getting jabbed every thirty seconds and b) it still wouldn’t stop me. I’m accordingly chalking the pain up to the physical problem. I get along just fine, except for having occasional periods when I can’t drive; difficulty listening to music; and perceptual difficulties. I call myself GE: sixty “whats” per conversation.

All of this will go away eventually (and, alas, return) as it has in the past, but the problem is that my concentration is shot at the moment. I as a result don’t really have a topic to write about today. I am accordingly asking you, our loyal TKZers who visit us (and me every other Saturday): what would you like us at TKZ to write about? You can name more than one topic. I just ask that you be specific as possible. We try to cover a wide range of things here but there is always a chance that we’re missing something that folks would like to read about and then discuss. I can’t guarantee that one of us will cover something that you mention, but we’ll certainly think about it. Let us know. Thank you for filling the void today.

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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

31 thoughts on “Playing It by Ear

  1. Feel better soon!

    As to topics. At TKZ, all contributors do a great job covering a wide variety of topics, both the expected writer topics and the unexpected (insights I didn’t realize I needed until I read them) so sometimes it’s hard to think of specific things to add. They’re not new topics, but here are a few which come to mind:

    The problem of perfectionism sabotaging writing.

    Staying organized as a writer–notes, research (mobile devices are helping bridge the gap between computer & paper but it remains a challenge).

    How to tackle the huge task of world building when writing a series.

    The most unconventional way anyone ever wrote a novel.

    Why do most (not all) writers tend to write only one area–ie. fiction or non-fiction. Are there traits or skills brought to one or the other that are different than the other or is it simply preference?

    That’s all I can think of at the moment.

  2. “Just because it’s right doesn’t make it good.” This is something my first critique group used to spout frequently when I’d try to justify something I’d written with “but something like that really happened to me,” etc.
    It’s not a matter of ‘too much research on the page” but rather a way to make sure your words make sense to the largest number of readers. Everything from using the “right” word that could pull someone out of a story because they think it’s wrong (or vice versa) to the “right” way things happen, or how characters would react to the situation you put them in.
    Does this make any sense? It’s early here.

    • That appealing to the largest # of readers isn’t easy–especially when tied to how you write characters reacting to a situation. To me that’s a struggle because there are sometimes formulaic expectations on the part of the reader (and critiquer). Formula can be good–it exists for a reason. But sometimes it hinders.

    • It makes all of the sense in the world, Terry. I just started to read a book that was perfect in every way (punctuation, grammar, introduction, etc.) except for one thing: it didn’t have a story I wanted to read. It made a huge difference. Thanks!

  3. Sorry to hear you’re having physical problems. I hope you feel better soon. I’ve read novellas are becoming more popular as people have less time these days. I’m wondering how popular novelettes are becoming. I rarely hear them mentioned. —- Suzanne

    • Thank you so much, Patricia. I see novelettes primarily in e-book form these days. A lot of authors use them as a stand-alone introduction to a series and sell them at a reduced rate or give them away for free as a marketing tool. I like them just for the sake of a story. Not everything has to be 300+ pages.

  4. Sorry to hear about your physical problems. I know how you feel.
    I discovered that I was nearly deaf and needed hearing aids. The improvement was profound. The bad part was that I had been the one running the sound system at my church! Now I can understand all the nasty looks I would get from around the room from the worshipers.
    Get better!

    As for topics – everything you all write here is great. It is all helpful. But I received a comment on my first page critique some time ago that puzzles me. The contributor said I needed a better understanding of structure. I opened with a disturbing event and overall the comments were very positive, but perhaps some discussion about what role structure plays in the first page of a story would help.

    Thanks for all you and the others here do for us!

    • Thanks Dave, sorry to learn that you have had similar problems. I think that those folks at church, however, were giving you dirty looks because they were jealous. Happens to me all of the time. 🙂

  5. I’d like to see a blog about how to find the right title for your books. I don’t write thrillers, but women’s fiction but I think the problem crosses genres. When I see a good title, I immediately know it, but coming up with one that doesn’t sound hackneyed (or hasn’t been used) has me stumped. Something tells me I need to use the word “girl” in my title but another part of me (the stubborn one) refuses to take the easy way out

    • Thanks, Maggie. I’m with you. You know when people start making jokes about a title (“Girl Who…”) that the fad has run its course.

  6. Good morning, Joe

    Sorry to hear that you’re having ear problems. It sounds like Meniere’s disease. I hope you’re getting it checked.

    Ideas for future discussions:
    – Creativity. Pursuits beyond writing that cultivate/encourage creativity. Favorite books on creativity.
    – Not writing every day. How to keep the flow? Some of us literally have time constraints that prevent us from writing every day. How do we maintain momentum with the process?
    – A check list before we agree to collaborate with another writer. I recently hurt a friendship because I asked a friend to work with me, and then found that each of our entire approaches to the process were incompatible.

    I always enjoy the discussion here, every other Saturday. I hope you start feeling better soon.

    • Steve, pursuits that encourage creativity and the issue of the checklist you want to go over before collaborating are really good ones!

    • Good afternoon, Steve. My fedora is off to you. I looked up “Meniere’s Disease” and I have six of the ten symptoms. Thanks so much. Does Medicare cover blog consultation?

      Thanks for those suggestions as well. You’re a prince.

  7. We pray you get better soon. Perhaps a couple of stiff drinks will help the balancing, but definitely keep you from driving and becoming a slurred GE “Whaaa?”

    I agree with the others. This has been a great source of learning, developing craft, etc.

    Future articles?

    – Developing and planting “red herrings.”
    – We have the 7 Deadly Sins, the Magnificent Seven, the 7 Wonders of the World. After murder, what are the six remaining crimes that mystery/thriller writers like to tackle?

    Again, hope your feeling better soon.

    • Thanks, Larry. The stiff drinks (or even limp ones) really aren’t an option, alas, but maybe if I tilt my head in the direction of the vertigo it will compensate.

      Re: the seven mystery/murder topics…theft, lust, greed…

  8. Joe, glad our esteemed Dr. Steve chimed in about Meniere’s b/c your symptoms sound like my husband’s. He’s had Meniere’s for 50 years. OTC Meclizine and Lipoflavonoid help him. Acute attacks are no fun. Hope you’re better soonest.

    Steve and BK, although I’ve never done a book-length collaboration, I wrote a number of articles with various co-writers. What worked best was choosing someone with complementary skills (rather than similar ones) b/c we didn’t step on each other’s toes or get in ego competitions. One did research or interviews, the other did the actual drafting, and we edited and polished together.

    I’ll dig into the dusty archives and see if I can find the article I wrote about collaboration. It was half the money, but twice the fun.

    Kris is our resident expert on collaboration.

    • RE: Collaborations: in fairness, with time & distance, I realize now that although both parties in the collaboration could have done better, I think the greater part of error lay with me, & quite frankly I simply didn’t think through things before launching into such an endeavor. But it was all worthwhile–I learned from my mistakes and I know things I would do differently should I ever choose to collaborate again. I do like your idea of totally separating out tasks (one drafting, one researching etc.). I think that’s a wise course of action.

    • Debbie, thanks for sharing and the good wishes. This to shall pass. And yes, indeed, Kris is the expert on collaboration!

  9. Chronic problems suck.

    I’m with you on the hearing problems – I need to get my hearing checked one of these days. It’s a genetic thing in my family – as you age, your hearing declines to the point of needing hearing aids. I come right out and tell people, though, that I sometimes have problems hearing, so I don’t have to say ‘what’ every time. I can just say ‘Sorry, I didn’t hear that’, or ‘please talk louder/clearer’. And they usually do talk louder/clearer then, so there isn’t much of the ‘sorry’.

    And I also understand concentration problems due to health problems. I hope you feel much better very soon. And I hope you and your doctors can find some way to cure the infection once and for all, or to at least prevent its recurrence.

    As for topics: You folks cover so much good stuff, I have problems thinking of specific topics you haven’t already covered.

    Hmm. I know this blog is mostly for mystery/thriller writers, but I’d really be interested in hearing what the publishing environment is like for science fiction. As in, what publishers seem to be buying; is it easier or harder to get into traditional publishing with science fiction; should I be querying thriller/mystery agents when my science fiction is largely thriller/mystery in scifi settings – that sort of thing. But that may only be interesting to me, among the readers here, so I’ll understand if you folks decide not to go this way.

    On another note, I really do appreciate the blog posts on making things real in novels, like guns, knives, fighting, etc. You guys have so much experience and knowledge in those areas!

    • Thanks for the good wishes, BJ. I’m having a little trouble accepting that I might have a chronic problem because I feel so good otherwise, as if I’m in my 20s (well, maybe my late 20s).

      You bring up some interesting topics…I think that if you want to get a quick feel for what science fiction publishers are publishing you might pick up one of the excellent annual Best Of anthologies. Gardner Dozois publishes one and the latest — the 34th (!) should be out shortly. Each volume carries an excellent summation of the state of the industry in the genre. There are others which do the same. Good luck!

  10. Likewise on the wish for a prompt ear-problem recovery. Pardon my presumptuousness of offering health care advice (especially because I’m not a doctor), but if there is a bacterial/inflammation/excess moisture element to the ear pain (sometimes called swimmer’s ear), which I have had chronically over the years, probably because of using hearing aids, I’ve had quick success and relief in using a sterilized eye dropper to put some rubbing alcohol in each ear, one at a time, and letting it dine on any bacteria for a minute or so. Then I tilt my head so the alcohol can drain out completely and help evaporate any trapped moisture than may be exacerbating any infection or inflammation.

    The concept is discussed in this University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics post:

    As to topics for discussion to assist writers, I’d appreciate discussion of the “crime” genre and guides for figuring out where a writer’s work fits (including sub-genres like mystery, thriller, suspense, noir and so forth) and how accurately and fairly to describe it in pitches to agents/publishers and publicity/platform matters.

    For example, should a fictional story set in 1960 involving a protagonist who takes on the mob and its criminal enterprises (when the author was alive, drawing obliquely on his experiences) be deemed “historical” with crime elements or a crime thriller/suspense story set in 1960.

    I realize there may be no hard and fast rules, any rules may be evolving, and categorization is subjective. Thank you for considering this subject.
    yhR should perhaps be said to be , b

    • Thank you, David, I appreciate the advice and good wishes. Re: your hypothetical, I would classify it as a “historical crime novel” or “historical crime fiction.” If it is based on real-world occurrences with real people then you might also call it “true crime fiction.” An example of the latter would be Ace Atkins’ books “WHITE SHADOW and WICKED CITY.” While reasonable minds can and do differ, a novel can be classified as “historical” if written at least twenty-five to fifty years (I’ve seen both demarcations) after the events therein described. Setting the novel in 1960 would meet both (a painful admission, as I remember 1960, alas, better than I remember 2010). Good luck!

  11. Hope you’re feeling well soon, Joe.
    What I would like to know is this: in a murder mystery (and no doubt many other genres) when in the timeline of events do you actually start the book? With a body being discovered? I have a partial first draft of a mystery, but feel that I really haven’t nailed down just what point in the story that first scene should be set. Finding a body is certainly an attention-grabbing event, but should it be the first scene? And if not, what would be a better way to start the book?

    • Thank you, Pat.

      You propose a terrific topic because there are a multitude of ways that one can open a murder mystery, including the one you mentioned. It can open in the aftermath of the body being discovered (police procedural); it can begin with the events immediately leading up to the murder (suspense, featuring a serial killer or stalker); or one can start inside the mind of the killer before or after the murder, or during the act. There are others, I’m sure. I hope that helps for your immediate needs, and maybe one of my fellow TKZers can do an entire blog post on it. Good luck!

  12. I’d like to see more of the books and blogs apply the “craft” principles explicitly to crime and detection stories. For example, I don’t see much if any character arc in most detective stories. I don’t see three “doors.” The first door is often right at the beginning when the detective gets the case. And from there on it often seems to progress without a “middle” or a second door. Also, I’d like to see some “empirical” analysis of “show, don’t tell.” I just read _The Burning Room_ by Connelly and the bulk of the first several pages is telling and back story. It didn’t bother me the way the first thirty pages or so of “telling” and back story in Grafton’s _X_ bothered me. (By the way, I recently looked back at _A if for Alibi_ and _B is for Burglar_. Grafton didn’t do that in those books. I could see why I got hooked on Kinsey and why I’ve had to work harder and harder to stick with her as she progressed through the alphabet.)

    • Eric, those are great topics which will hopefully be explored here in the days and weeks to come. Thank you.

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