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.

Goin’ by Fats’ House

Happy New Year! As promised, what follows is my account of meeting Fats Domino…

(c) Copyright tripadvisor.com. All rights reserved.

One of the first rock ‘n’ roll records that I recall hearing was “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino. I was blessed to have grown up in the 1950s and 1960s, when Top 40 radio was a wonderful mix of rockabilly, soul, rock, doo-wop, country & western, and r&b. It made for some exotic blocks of music — Everly Brothers followed by Barbara George giving way to Ferrante & Teicher and then Rick Nelson — but it was never boring. If you didn’t like a song, you just waited. You’d hear something you would like before too long. It was Fats, however, more than anyone else, who spoke to me. I had a friend (and he’s still a friend) whose older sister, LM,  had one of the best record collections I’d ever seen or heard at that point in time, and it included all sorts of Fats Domino 45s, many of which I’d never heard up until that point. We spent hours listening to them, particularly the ‘B’ sides, which were rarely played on the radio. I remember leaving his house one afternoon, my friend and me and another guy singing Fats’ infectious “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday.” We were 10 years old at the time. We all got old, but the songs never did.

(c) Copyright Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fast forward to 1999. 45s had become a novelty, confined to limited pressing collector item releases. What were called “car phones” were being replaced by “cell phones” and “cell phones” didn’t have cameras or GPS or maps yet. The first iPhone would be released in eight years. Something called “google” was about a year old and something else called “wifi” was slowly making its way into the lexicon. Primitive times. November of that year found me in New Orleans on business. It was during this particular visit that I had lunch with a local musician who we’ll call J and whose extended family had for three generations been an integral part of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. While we ate a couple of coma-inducing po’boys we talked about the city’s history. He looked somewhat askance at me a couple of times from across the table, expressing wonder at how a middle-aged white guy “not from around here” knew so much about his family and their musical contributions. The wonder turned to amazement when I took him back to my hotel room and played him some CDs of New Orleans music I had brought with me — iPods were two years away — which included recordings his relatives had played on but that he had never heard. We talked a bit more and were almost wrapping up when he said, “Hey, what are doing this afternoon? You got a car? You wanna go by Fats’ house?”

My answers were “nothing,” “yes,” and “hell yes.” It was a trip I had wanted to make on previous visits but given that the New Orleans street system — designed, apparently, by a spider on LSD — was daunting,  I had over the course of a few visits only slowly started to venture into the city’s neighborhoods and out of the French Quarter. So, yes, if J wanted to direct me to Fats Domino’s house — deep, deep in the ‘hood known as the lower Ninth Ward — I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. After a sinus-clearing trip on the freeway with J’s occasionally helpful guidance (“left…no…no, right…no…left…NO, RIGHT! RIGHT! RIGHT!”) through a heavy thunderstorm, we wound up driving down Caffin Street and approaching its intersection with Marais Street I saw what I was sure was the house in question on the right. It appeared to be a shotgun-style duplex, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, with the words “Fats Domino Publishing” spelled out in lights on the front of the house.

When J had asked if I wanted to “go by Fat’s house” I assumed that he meant drive “by,” as opposed to “stopping.” And going in.  As we were um, driving by, however, J said, “Pull over there” pointing to a portion of the driveway which was in front of the house outside of the fence. I did. He got out of the car, then looked at me funny as I remained in the car, still not fully comprehending what was happening. He said, “C’mon!” and I did, turning off the engine and then stumbling a bit as I followed him. My brain and my body hadn’t quite synced up with the concept that I was walking into Fats Domino’s house. J in the meantime had negotiated the fence gate as the front door of the house opened. And there stood Fats.

I have often described myself as being too short for my weight (as opposed to weighing too much for my height) and such was certainly true of Fats. He had the appearance, as he stood there smiling shyly, of being compressed. Still very substantial at 5’4” and over 200 pounds, he nonetheless gave the impression of being possessed of a certain physical frailty. J introduced me as his “manager” (I wasn’t) and I shook hands with Fats (even as I write those words, I still can’t quite believe it) as he ushered us into his house. Please note: we were in Fats’ house, which was a combination annex and office. His HOUSE, actually, was next door, a huge place on Marais Street where he and his family (and several large automobiles) resided. The world-famous Cadillac Couch, however — a three seater fashioned from the tail-end of a Cadillac — was in the annex. Fats waved me over to it, saying something. I at that point in time was very unfamiliar with the New Orleans patois (which varies from neighborhood to neighborhood) and will confess that I couldn’t understand what he was saying. When I continued to stand there, however, he laughed and said, “Siddown!” I did. Carefully. He and J sat and talked for a bit — I couldn’t follow the conversation, but it was something about one of J’s relatives — and after about ten minutes they finished up their business. As we got up to leave, Fats shot me a smile and walked over to a beautiful piano, where he sat down, and then played and sang the introduction and opening verse of “Blueberry Hill.” It would be an understatement to say that he still had the magic. His voice was strong and his playing was complex, confident and flawless. It was if a switch had been flipped on inside of him when he sat down, releasing the muse entrapped from the reserved, seemingly infirm man with whom I had spent the past several minutes.  All I could think was, “I wish that LM were here.”

(c) Copyright Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved.

When Fats stopped playing I started to clap but he ducked his head shyly again and waved me off. J said to him, “Why don’t you give him one of those Christmas records?” and he did, handing me a copy of a disc titled Christmas Is a Special Day.  I thought later that I should have asked Fats to autograph it. I was still catching up, however, with what was going on and where I was, standing next to a man whose work I had been listening to for over five decades.  I had no way of otherwise memorializing it either — no camera or camera phone —  but that was okay. We said our goodbyes and I walked out of the “house” (as opposed to the “HOUSE”) into a world which was much different than it had been just a half-hour before.

(c) Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved.

The world almost twenty years on from that day is also much different. One constant, however, is that Fats’ music remains timeless. His first single, “The Fat Man,” is considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Listening to it seventy years after its release one can hear Fats and the assembled musicians, under the direction of bandleader Dave Bartholomew, galloping into a previously uncharted musical territory. Then there is “I’m Walkin,” which, sixty years after its release, was licensed for a FitBit commercial. It’s a perfect pairing, given that one can’t sit still while listening to it. And of course there’s…but I need to be quiet and go away. I’ve prattled on too long. Anyway, that’s my brush with stardom. I’ve met a number of my idols since that time, but my meeting with Fats is in a class by itself.

Your turn now. Have you had any meetings with a major and famous influence in your life that you would like to talk about? I am going to attempt to stay uncharacteristically silent while you inform us, but I can’t promise anything. Thank you.



…and to all…


(c) 2017, Soho Press. All rights reserved.

I don’t as a rule like holiday-themed works of art. There are exceptions. Christmas Is a Special Day, an album of Christmas songs by Fats Domino, remains a favorite (in part because it was gifted to me by The Man himself, but that’s another story). I also listen repeatedly to Come On Christmas to Dwight Yoakam, and read The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg and “The Gift of the  Magi”  by O Henry a few times as well. Those are the exceptions to the rule, however.

I added one more holiday item to the list this year. It can be found in a recently published anthology titled The Usual Santas which is published by Soho Crime. I was immediately struck by the concept of the collection, that being to take the imprint’s roster of authors and commission Christmas-themed crime and thriller stories from them. It’s a wonderful collection from beginning to end. There is one story that stands out, however, that being “Chalee’s Nativity” by Timothy Hallinan. Tim writes a memorable series about Poke Rafferty, an expatriate American living in Bangkok, which is where “Chalee’s Nativity” is set. Rafferty does not poke his nose under the story’s tent, but Hallinan’s ever-keen eye for observation is fully and accurately street-tuned in this story about two orphans swept up onto the rough and dangerous streets of Bangkok at Christmastime. I have read this story every single day since I first encountered it in October, and will probably continue to do so long after this Christmas has passed. I won’t say that I haven’t complained about anything since I first read it, but this account of mind-numbing poverty, ill fortune, and charity of spirit has renewed my appreciation for what I have, from the moment when I wake up in the morning to the time when I close my eyes in the evening. If you get a chance in the run-up to the holidays please find a copy The Usual Santas and read it (as well as the other stories in the collection). You will be thankful.

Since we are talking about appreciation for what we have, please know that as we wind down 2017 that I appreciate you, and you, and yes, you for coming by this page and spending a few minutes with us here at TKZ and, if you are so inclined, commenting. It means a lot, more than you probably realize. I hope that all of us will continue to make your visit worthwhile.

Best wishes. See you in 2018, if the Good Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise.



In Media Res with LESSER EVILS: First Page Critique

Photo: “Left Behind” by Jon Hernandez, unsplash.com

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome to THE KILL ZONE First Page Critique!

Let’s all take a look at how Anon drops us into the middle of a plane crash with great aplomb in Lesser Evils:

Lesser Evils

The instant her helicopter touched down, Francine threw the door open, leaned out, and shouted, “Any survivors?”

She already knew the answer. For as far as she could see, fragments of her company’s plane littered barren, rocky terrain. In the waning-sunset gloom, scattered islands of yellow flames flickered in a huge sea of shattered metal—only the jet’s tail and two small engines intact enough to recognize. The destruction of her plane and the ten lives it had carried was absolute.

Francine suppressed a grin.

Absolute was what she’d planned.

Next on her plan was a bit of stagecraft. The sheriff’s deputy she’d yelled at stood less than a hundred feet away, but the scream of the copter’s motor as it powered down drowned out all other sound. She carefully stepped from the two person cockpit onto apple-sized volcanic rocks. Freezing in the copter’s windstorm, she pulled her jacket tight, stumbled forward on sloping ground, her pilot following closely behind.

When they reached the officer, she paused to catch her breath and almost choked on the sulfuric rotten-egg stench. The engine noise finally died. She pasted on a well-rehearsed look of anxiety and said again to the deputy, “Any survivors?”

He looked the two of them up and down. “Who are you?”

Francine’s pilot handed the cop a business card. “Ian Brack, Corporate Security, International Health Enterprises. This is Dr. Francine Duvaine. She owns the company and the plane.”

The deputy stared at her for a moment; then shook his head. “No one could have survived. Slammed into the caldera at over four hundred knots, a ton of fuel on board. Couple of folks at the tourist center fainted. Fireball was so big they thought St. Helens was erupting again.” He shook his head again. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“Please, you’re certain?” She made her voice crack. “No one?”

“No one.”

She closed her eyes, hung her head, and stood still for a few seconds. There—her work here was done. “Thank you, officer.” She began to turn away. “Thank you.”

“A real shame.” The deputy said. “Two crew and seven passengers.”

Francine whirled back toward him. “Seven?” She shot a glance at Brack and marveled at how he maintained a calm expression. Her pulse pounding in her temples, she took a deep breath. “You’re absolutely sure? Seven—not eight?”


I want the rest of Lesser Evils right now. I’m going to forego the usual nitpicking on it simply because the author does so much correctly in terms of storytelling. The pacing is just right. The narrative baits and sinks the hook from the first few words. This big fish was then caught and netted. Yes, there are a few typos (one near the beginning, one near the end, to name two) and if no one mentions them by close of business today (and we never close) I will jump in and note them but Anon, you are on the right track here.

Why do I love Lesser Evils? Anon drops us right into the middle of the action in a manner which entices without confusing. The introduction of two of the main characters is handled simply, but in a more interesting manner than just stating their names (which would have been fine). We know right away where the crash takes place.  There are a couple of surprises in the first page, those being 1) Francine’s hidden reaction to her company’s plane crashing and 2) the news that, apparently, not everyone died (and she’s not happy). It’s terrific. Those two elements will undoubtedly play out over at least the first few pages of the book and possibly beyond. It makes the reader wonder why Francine planned the crash, how she will be caught, when she’ll be caught, who will discover it, and the consequences. The audience will also be asking where that eighth body, breathing or otherwise, might be. I am assuming that later on Anon will explain to someone how Francine and Ian got there so quickly, where the plane took off from, and how Francine will keep from getting into trouble by landing in the middle of a crash scene, but what we have here is everything I want and could reasonably ask for in a first page: murder most foul; an intriguing villain, and a surprise or two, all wrapped in the same box without bumping into each other.

I wanted page two of Lesser Evils, then page three, and so on. I know I’ve got a good read in my hands when I feel that way. Go, Anon, go!

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet while I turn the comments, praises, and criticisms portion of this page over to our wonderful readers and visitors. Enjoy!



The Best Book…Ever…

(c) Copyright 2017, Annalisa Hartlaub. All rights reserved.

I read the best book ever last week. The book in question is titled Dr. Sticksel & the Lucky Umbrella. It is written for elementary school readers by my daughter, Annalisa Hartlaub, who self-published it with a limited print run for a specific purpose. More on that in a moment.

Please let me explain who “Dr. Sticksel” is. He is Dr. Phil Sticksel, a highly regarded meteorologist who worked worldwide for Battelle Memorial Institute, a science and technology research organization based in the Columbus, Ohio. Battelle partnered with Longfellow Elementary Math and Science Magnet School in Westerville, Ohio, which Annalisa attended. A major element of that partnership involved Battelle providing past and present personnel to Longfellow to assist with its science program. My first contact with Dr. Sticksel was at a school function during Annalisa’s first-grade year at Longfellow. He told me by way of introduction that Annalisa was functioning at genius level and was destined for amazing things. He mentored her through elementary school and beyond. He was (to name but one instance) in attendance when Annalisa, at the time a sixteen-year-old high school student, presented a research paper at The Ohio State University School of Medicine. Dr. Sticksel, now well into his eighties, has experienced some decline in health in the last few years but still stays mentally active and has continued through me to keep up to date on Annalisa. He was thrilled to learn that she presented another research paper this past September at the 2017 IEEE VIS Conference in Phoenix. She was the only attendee to do so who did not have a degree. “One of MY students did that?!” Dr. Sticksel asked. Yes, Sir. One of your students.

Annalisa at age twenty will be closing her career at The Ohio State University in three weeks by earning a degree in neuroscience. She did, however, take the time to fulfill a long-held dream. With the assistance of a grant from OSU’s STEP program, Annalisa wrote Dr. Sticksel & the Lucky Umbrella, the book I mentioned at the beginning of this bit of logorrhea. Yes, I might be prejudiced, but it is wonderful. It tells the story of a meteorologist who, with his pet opossum, has a lucky umbrella that keeps the rain away. Every word is true, to one degree or another. Annalisa put it all together — text, artwork, and all — and had the books printed by the fine folks at bookbaby. When the books arrived we took Annalisa several miles north to Dr. Sticksel’s home and surprised him with several copies. He was stunned, overjoyed, and surprised. It is of equal importance to note that, after Annalisa slips a copy or two of Dr. Sticksel & the Lucky Umbrella to Mom and Dad, the remaining copies of the books are being donated to the Westerville Elementary school library system. Dr. Sticksel may be retired, but he will live on in the halls of the Westerville schools and in the hearts and minds of the students for years to come.

Annalisa’s father, of course, sees this new book as the springboard for sorts of potential projects. “What about a Dr. Sticksel series, like Rotten Ralph?! A cartoon show on Netflix! Action figures! A four cup cineplex movie! Greeting cards! Video games! Graphic novels!” Annalisa doesn’t want to hear it, at least not now. Perhaps she will in six months, at which point she’ll convince herself that a spinoff project is her idea. For now, however, she concurs with the observation I made as we drove away from Dr. Sticksel’s home. “You know,” I said, “I think you made him really, really happy.” Annalisa responded, “That’s all I wanted to do.” Amen to that. I can’t think of a better reason to write a book.

Photo (c) Copyright 2017, Lisa O. Hartlaub

So…authors…when the rubber hits the road, why do you write? Other than for filthy lucre, of course?  And readers…why do you read? I mean, really? What is it about reading that entertains you? Tell us, please. And Happy Thanksgiving, from my house to yours.



Avoiding Reader Burnout by Texting the Gods

(c) Copyright 2017, Random House Books for Young Readers

I’ve been repeatedly having the same vaguely disturbing conversation in person and via email with a number of individuals recently about books and reading. The topic is variously referred to as “reading fatigue,” “book burnout,” and “reading slump,” among other terms. The complaint centers upon the perceived feeling that new books being published are “all” following the same pattern. Elements of that pattern would include 1) “the placement of the word ‘girl’ in the title; 2) the unreliable first-person narrator; and 3) a missing child/husband/sister who seems to suddenly reappear with an inability to explain their absence.

It is true that publishing industry generally is reactive and not proactive. We all remember The Da Vinci Code. That book became a sub-genre unto itself. It seemed for a while as if every other newly published book concerned a hunt for an ancient relic that, depending on what it was and who was hunting it, would destroy, save, or enslave the world. Going back a bit further, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and John Grisham’s The Firm revived the popularity of the courtroom thriller, though it’s not as if that sub-genre ever really went away, once Erle Stanley Gardner had taken that beachhead in the 1930s with his Perry Mason novels.

There is some method to publishing’s madness, based on the proposition that if the public likes a certain type of book then it will want more of the same. I don’t recall a research  ever calling me and asking, “If you went to the library tomorrow, what type of book would you look for?” My answer would be “bound,” but that’s beside the point.

What does this mean for budding authors? My best advice is to not follow trends. If someone writes a book about an alcoholic housewife on a train who suspects that she has witnessed a murder being committed, and it becomes a bestseller, write your book about something else. Flip the script. Write about a recovering alcoholic who is as reliable as a Fossil Haywood and who, while doing some backyard gardening,  believes that she sees someone being murdered on the LIRR. I’m only kind of kidding. Do something different, because by the time you write your book and find an agent the publishers will probably be looking for something else. As for readers: if you’re tired of new books, look for an author who is new to you, or go back to the past and seek out something in your favorite genre among the mountains of books that have been published in the past sixty years or so. You can also seek out a couple of go-to authors. When I do my own reading, and nothing seems to please me, I pick up one of Timothy Hallinan’s fine novels, or an Elmore Leonard book, or start working my way through James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux canon, among others, to shake me out of my doldrums. Reading is good for you. You don’t want to stop.

Whatever you do, whether you are writing or reading or both, please don’t develop the impression that there are too many books. One of the blessings in my life is my association with bookreporter.com. I started reviewing books for Carol Fitzgerald’s website twenty years ago, and one of the many happy results of that relationship is that I receive new books of all sorts on an almost daily basis. Some of them are outside of my interest or demographic or whatever you wish to call it, as was one which I recently received entitled Greek Gods #squadgoals by Courtney Carbone, a children’s book editor and author. I thumbed through it and was totally lost — I don’t get the whole ‘#’ thing, or tweeting, Instagram, Pinterest, and the rest,  and probably never will — but the premise of the book was interesting, if incomprehensible to me in execution. It tells the stories of Greek Mythology from the point of view of the participants while assuming that they had smartphones and could text one another. I passed the book onto Samantha,  our (almost) eleven granddaughter. Samantha lives in the same city as we do, and as a result — another blessing — we get to see her frequently. I left Greek Gods at her place at the kitchen table. She came over for a visit, picked it up, and was entranced. She put her phone down, ignored the computer, turned off the flat screen, and started reading it from beginning to end, laughing all the way and sharing passages with us. Samantha is no stranger to books. She is working her way through that wonderful Warriors series by Erin Hunter and the likes of R. L. Stine, Chris Grabenstein’s Mr. Lemoncello books, and a host of others. This doesn’t happen by accident. Her father —my son — is a reader himself, and makes sure that she gets to the library and a local children’s bookstore pretty much on demand. I was happiest, however, about Samantha devoting full focus to Greek Gods. Whether she will at some point down the road pour over Edith Hamilton’s classic work on the subject, in the same manner in which those wonderful Classics Illustrated comics led me to H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and yes, Fyodor Dostoyevsky,  remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that from Samantha’s perception there won’t be too many books, or not enough interesting ones. There simply won’t be enough time to read them all.

Back to you. What book or series would you want to read right now, time and availability permitting? For me, it would be Richard Prather’s Shell Scott series, in the original paperback editions. You?



First Page Critique: THE ARCANISTS

Artwork by Jean-Louis Grandsire, courtesy pixabay.com

Good morning, my friends, and thank you for visiting us at The Kill Zone today. Please join me in welcoming Anon du jour, who has bravely offered a submission entitled The Arcanists to our irregularly scheduled First Page Critique!

The Arcanists

“Remember, this isn’t a bust, so no ruckus,” he said.


“I mean it.”


“If things get tight, drop out.”

Grim waved behind her and strode toward the Gasping Grouse.

Not far off, a foghorn warded ships into port. A train rattled, tracking, like a harried squirrel, along the rails overhead.

Grim hunched her shoulders, shoved her hands in her deep pockets.

As she pushed past the wooden doors, a sulfur cloud of smoke and unwashed flesh wormed into her nostrils, wringing water from her eyes. She should have been used to this by now, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to cover her face with her sleeve.She kept her eyes low as she snaked between the bar and the tables, past rows of cardsharps and washed up sogs who didn’t know when to give in.

She found the informant gazing into a full tankard at the end of the room.


Grimhorn liked to settle her accounts with a lamb’s smile and a loaded spell deck in her overcoat pocket. The smile came free of charge. The deck was insurance.

You could never know many aces an informant was hiding in his vest, and Grim didn’t give two lashings if things got messy when they refused to pay up.

She leaned into the shadow of a brick wall and turned her collar up against the cold. Across the road, smoke and steam poured from the gaslit hub of the Gasping Grouse. Tonight’s quarry was a dream merchant with a penchant for fraud.

Grim’s partner, Gravehound, stood by as Grim flexed her mechanical left arm. He tossed his cigarette onto the cobblestone and stamped it out with his boot.

“Rusty gears?” he asked.

Grim shook her head. “Steelshifter’s metal. It don’t rust.”

“That isn’t cheap. How’d you get your hands on it?”

Grim smiled.

“You’re a piece of work,” Gravehound said.

“Don’t I know it.” Grim pulled a leather glove over her metal fingers. The steelshifter had fitted her just a week ago but the arm suited her almost as well as if she’d been born with it. And it had only cost her one month’s pay—after she’d bartered him down a little.

“I’m going in,” she said, patting the deck beneath her wool coat.

Gravehound clutched her arm.

She glanced back. His hair shone silver in the darkness, making him look far older than his twenty odd years.


Anon, The Arcanists appears to me to be aimed at the steampunk audience. Steampunk is not a genre that I reflexively reach for when looking for something to read, but a good story is a good story. Unfortunately, there are what I consider to be a couple of major flaw in your first page.

— Your story structure needs some work. You need some transition between the first section and the second sections of your story on this page. The transition 1) will connect them the sections and 2) advance the story.

Specifically, your first page is divided into two sections by a large paragraph break. These two sections appear to me to be alternative beginnings in a way.  They don’t really seem to connect and thus the story does not really advance. The first section begins with a person who we eventually learn is named “Grim” talking to… someone…for a few moments before Grim goes into a tavern called the Gasping Grouse and approaches an informant. Like Achilles chasing Zeno’s tortoise, however, they never quite meet up, at least on the page. We don’t know what the informant told Grim either generally or specifically in this section, and we don’t learn later. 

There is a paragraph break and things resume.  The second section has Grim, who we learn is also known as “Grimhorn,” and her companion, who we are now told is named “Gravehound,” once again standing outside of the Gasping Grouse. Grim is about to re-enter the establishment (apparently) with the intent of getting her quarry, who is referred to as the “dream merchant.” The section ends.

The first section should include some interaction between Grim and the informant, where the latter reveals where the dream merchant is, as well as a sentence or two indicating that Grim is leaving the premises. This will help you to advance the story to the second section. You can begin the second section with Grim and Gravehound discussing what she is going to do to apprehend the dream merchant and proceed accordingly.

— The second major flaw — and to my mind, the larger — is that what you have Grim doing makes no sense at all. If you go into a place to talk with an informant — particularly a crowded bar (you don’t go into a crowded bar to talk to an informant, by the way) — and the informant tells you that your target is at the bar, you don’t leave and then go back inside to get your target. If I go into a bar and talk to an informant who tells me, “Aye, the dream merchant is sitting at the bar, right over there, and is well into his cups!” and  then I leave, re-enter, and  grab the dream merchant, everyone, including the dream merchant, will know that my informant told me that he was in there. That’s a good way to lose an informant, not to mention one’s own eye. For your story’s sake, either put the dream merchant at another location (as revealed by Grim’s informant) or have Grim wait outside of the Gasping Grouse for the dream merchant and follow him for a couple of blocks before nabbing him.  

—  A third problem: when you begin a piece with two major characters having a conversation with each other you should name them both immediately. That way you get both characters established so that the reader will 1) have a better idea of who is saying what to whom and 2) begin to form a picture of those characters. You can then begin fleshing the characters out in the opening pages of the story.  You might also mention Grim’s  mechanical arm (even though you can’t flesh it out, heh heh) in the introductory paragraph. It sets Grim up as a badass from the jump.

There are a few other problems but those items are the story killers. All is not lost, however. I like the names and descriptions of your characters and the tavern (the Gasping Grouse is a terrific name for a dive bar) as well as your manner of describing the scenery. You set up mood and tone very well. It’s your substance and structure that need some work. Keep plugging away, Anon!

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet and open the floor to all who are assembled and inclined to comment. Thank you, Anon, for your submission.  Keep moving forward.












This Is (Almost) Halloween…

I know. Perhaps it is too early for me to be writing about Halloween. I’ve been seeing  merchandise for the unofficial holiday in stores since September 5th, however, so I’m actually behind the curve. Herewith please find my subjective list of Top Five frightening reads that will carry you through the next few weeks:

MISERY — I was given this newly published book as a present for Father’s Day 1987. I started reading it that afternoon and did not stop until I finished it that evening. Some dad, huh? Stephen King’s now-iconic tale of popular author Paul Sheldon’s extended visit with defrocked nurse Annie Wilkes — his Number One Fan — more than stands on its own merits. It makes/tops my list, however, because I had a relationship with someone very much like Annie, right down to her potentially dangerous mood changes and odd turns of phrase, the manifestation of which always preceded what I would come to call an “episode.” I read this book at least once a year, repenting at leisure and recalling the exhilarating sound of doom whistling by me at a near-miss.

THE SHINING — This tale about Jack Torrance, a struggling author with writer’s block the size of a Jersey Wall, and his family was already quite well known when it was adapted for a (lesser) film by Stanley Kubrick. I screamed twice while reading it. The first was during young Danny Torrance’s encounter with the girls in the hall.  To this day, when I am in a large hotel with a long, carpeted corridor, I think of Danny and the girls who wanted to play with him forever.The second was during the bathroom scene. I have, unbidden, remembered this scene at inopportune moments over the course of my adult life, with unhappiness ensuing. The book as a whole, however, is a terrific example of how to wring every bit of drama that can be wrung out of a single location.

THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty — This early 1970s novel was a potboiler for sure — and that is one of my highest compliments — but it is a cringe-inducing tale of demonic possession and the efforts of a heroic priest to save the life and soul of an innocent girl  which fed right into my Roman Catholic upbringing. My father, who spend serious and quality time in Seminary school, assisted in an exorcism and told me that Blatty’s account of possession was mild compared to what he witnessed. That might have been, but it is hard to believe that what (almost) Father Joe experienced was any more frightening than Blatty’s description.

‘SALEM’S LOT by, ummm, Stephen King — I have always enjoyed well-written vampire novels — there aren’t many of them — but there is a special place in my heart for this story of the Undead and love lost in a small town on its last legs. King’s second novel published under his own name is a textbook example of how to plant a slow, unnamable dread on the first page, nurture it, and grow it to full blossom stark terror. The television adaptation, with David Soul in the lead role, has its weaknesses but actually stands up quite well. A planned sequel was later incorporated into the Dark Tower series in THE WOLVES OF THE CALLA and SONG OF SUSANNAH but neither quite reach the atmospheric levels of fright found in this book.

THE BODY SNATCHERS by Jack Finney — I saw the 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers before I read the book upon which it is based. That august novel, although almost as old as I am, has held up much better than either myself or its film adaptation. Marketed as science fiction, THE BODY SNATCHERS is a paranoia-laden horror story about alien seed pods that land on earth and begin producing a duplicate replacement copy of each human being. You have almost certainly seen at least one of the three films based on the book but you can’t beat the source material on any level. Five-year-old mini-Me was also certain at one point that his parents had been pod-snatched. You might as well, but take a chance and pick up a copy of this classic if you’ve never read it.

You know what I’m going to ask now, I’m sure: what are your favorite horror/scary novels? And why? Thank you.


First Page Critique: CROSSROADS

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome, to our Saturday morning installment of FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE! We have here the beginning of a work titled CROSSROADS, so let’s cue up either the Sailcat album, Neil Young’s Comes a Time LP, or Cream’s Wheels of Fire to provide some background music and proceed:



Kelli Wade speeds along the 405 at night, wears her chopped jeans, favorite silk T, coffee-with-cream Chanel jacket, and cowboy boots.  She threads her way between a bus and rusty Toyota, leaning on her Harley.  Blonde hair streams straight out behind her; her helmet strapped to the side of the seat, unused.  Tears streak the sides of her face, momentarily blurring her vision of the dark traffic.

He was sleeping with that waitress-whore!  Did he think I wouldn’t find out?

She has keyed his car, front, back and both sides, before riding away from her ruined relationship.  And this, after getting word that Jackie, her college roommate, has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.

“Up yours!”  The rage in her voice blends with the deep-throated growl of the cycle’s engine.  Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.  Did he think I was stupid, or didn’t he give a shit about my feelings?

She sits down hard behind her desk, alone, surrounded by darkness.  To keep her mind off murder, she begins to sort through stacks of paper, invoices, and case reports.  The normal day-to-day function of her job.

She takes a deep breath.  Is there’s any wine left in the fridge?

Dawn leaks in through the window blinds, sending streaks across the polished floor.  Other operatives of the agency begin to arrive to work, including her mother.


I’m predisposed to like CROSSROADS, Anon, because from the jump I liked Kelli Wade and how you are developing her from the jump. You get several things right. Naming your protagonist right out of the gate is a great move. You also put the reader in the moment from the first sentence by using the third person present narrative style. I especially like how you show your readers without telling them that Kelli is in Los Angeles: Taft Building + Route 405 + rusty Toyota (that sounds like award-winning author James Scott Bell’s hooptie to me!) = Los Angeles. Additionally, you show that Kelli does not take betrayal lightly. Revenge may be dish better eaten cold, but it’s pretty tasty in the heat of the moment, too. You paint a very clear picture of your character’s appearance and personality within just a few paragraphs, yet we don’t feel bombarded with information. That’s part of good pacing. The additional element of Kelli working with her mother is a nice touch as well.  More on that in a second.

Those are the positive elements. CROSSROADS needs to be cleaned up just a bit in a few places.


— First sentence: Kelli hits a tiny speed bump. She should be “wearing her jeans,” rather than “wears.” The third person present narrative is a good choice, but it has its pitfalls. I think you want a gerund there as opposed to a verb given that she already “speeds” along. Oh, and while you are at it: tell us the model of the Harley Kelli is riding. Enthusiasts love that information.

—  Third sentence: Let’s change that “her: her” to something else. I like to avoid using the same word twice in a row. And let’s get rid of that semi-colon. Here’s one way: Blonde hair streams straight out behind her. She has a helmet, but it’s strapped to the side of her seat, out of the way.


— First sentence: “She has keyed his car” …let’s change that to “She had keyed his car” since it takes place in the past, even if it’s just a few minutes ago.

— Second sentence: While we’re at it, let’s do the same thing and change “has been diagnosed” to “had been diagnosed” for the same reason.


— First and second sentences: These aren’t really incorrect but I’d like to see them a little shorter and tighter. Let’s use all verbs and make a couple of other changes. As things stand right now,

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.”  

Let’s change that to

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp. She pulls up behind the Taft Building and chains her bike to a fat drain pipe. A service elevator takes her to the sixth floor, where she swallows her pain and shoves open the double doors to Sunset Investigations.”


— The next issue is a question to which I honestly don’t know the answer. It seems as though most businesses store their files and send their bills electronically.  Would a contemporary private investigation agency use stacks of paper or would Kelli be poring over files on her computer? I’ve converted almost entirely to e-billing, electronic documents, etc. That brought me up short, if only momentarily. Of course, if the book’s “present” is before 2007 she is almost certainly pouring over paper. It’s a minor quibble.


— “Is there’s any wine” should be “Is there any wine”…but I suspect that you know that, Anon. Otherwise, good proofing all the way through.


—Dawn leaks in…so…we’ve already been told that Kelli arrived at night, but was it really night or really, really early in the morning? I would like some sort of sense of how long Kelli has been sitting in her office before morning comes. This can be handled in a few words earlier in the text to give us some idea of what time of night Kelli arrived at the office.

— I like the surprise of Kelli working with her mom, but it’s a reveal that you might leave for just a little later. Or not. Also…as CROSSROADS is presently written… how does Kelli know that her mom has arrived? Is Kelli’s office door open and she sees her? Or is the door closed and she hears her? There are all sorts of ways that you can address this and you can do it by showing, not telling. As is in:

Three knocks rattle Kelli’s office door. Only one person in the office knocks like that. “Come in, Mom,” Kelli sighs.

These suggestions are made in the spirit of making a good first page better, Anon. I like the setup and I like your character. Please keep going with both.

I will now strive mightily to be uncharacteristically quiet while our friends at TKZ today offer their own observations and comments. Thank you so much, Anon, for submitting CROSSROADS to First Page Critique! And please don’t forget to circle back and let us know when we can see the rest of CROSSROADS!


Josecius and the Kitten

Photo by Bing Han on unspash.com

By popular demand (okay, I had trouble of thinking of something else): here is another story involving a cat. Parts of the story will sound familiar but it is nonetheless true. This tai…I mean, tale, also has something to do with writing, believe it or not. Please bear with me.

In 1984 living I was living in a townhouse apartment, the back of which bordered a small woods. My unit was the sixth in a block of eighteen, nondescript from the others and generally quiet.

I was awakened early on a football Saturday morning by my sons, ages six and three, who insisted that I get up immediately. There was a scary noise, they said, outside at the back door. I came stumbling downstairs.  They were right. There was an unusual noise, all right. It was the sound of an animal in panic or pain. Or both. I opened the door and found a small kitten sitting there, making a loud and repetitive cry as it looked up at me. I bent down and saw that it apparently had been dumpster diving for breakfast. A chicken bone had splintered and wedged in its mouth across its canines. I sat down on the stoop, picked the kitten up, and put it on my lap. It continued to cry but displayed no fear of me as I gently opened its mouth and carefully pried the bone off of its teeth.

The kitten, overwhelmed with gratitude, bit me and ran off. I required a series of rabies shots and was sick for several days and never saw it again. But that isn’t what happened. No. It got off of my lap, rubbed figure eights around me, and then promptly ran into my apartment when I went back inside. I gently retrieved the kitten (with the help of my sons and our very jealous beagle) and put it outside. An hour later it presented a dead mouse at the back door. A few hours later a somewhat chewed robin was left at the front door. A series of similar grisly gifts appeared at irregular but frequent intervals over the next couple of days. Fortunately, I had a friend who was looking for a nice kitten. He adopted it. The kitten grew into a cat and lived to the age of nineteen. I would once in awhile stop over to visit. When I did so the cat, upon seeing me, would disappear outside and show up a half hour or so later with tribute in the form of a mouse, chipmunk, or squirrel. It apparently never forgot me.  Nor have I forgotten it.

I wondered for a long time why the kitten showed up at my particular door as opposed to someone else’s. There were any number of residences from which to choose. Why mine? I finally came up with a possible answer. About fifteen years ago I started shaving my head. I decided it was time when my hair became engaged in a follicle race to see whether each one would fall out or turn gray first. I discovered that I had a birthmark shaped like a catspaw on the back of my head. Go figure.

What does this have to do with writing? It’s simple. You are the cat. Your mouth is the story. The chicken bone is that story point that you get stuck on and just can’t get past. Find someone — a person to whom you normally go to in order to ask advice who will give you straight, no-nonsense advice in a gentle way — and ask them what to do. Don’t knock on their door early in the morning, screaming in distress. Wait for a decent hour and approach them. If they are of help to you, leave dead mice at their front door. Or, if you are otherwise inclined, mention them by name in your acknowledgements when you get published. They will tell their friends who will in turn buy your book, or at least read it. Your friends want to help you; sometimes they just need to be asked.

That’s all I got. Tell us, if you will and/or can, a cute animal story where you helped a creature in distress. Include what occurred afterward. In the alternative, please tell us a story about how going to a friend who got your story or novel unstuck and on the right track. Thank you.



Don’t Let It Get Away

Photo courtesy Marko Blazevic on unsplash.com

I was driving very early on Friday morning down some slightly foggy, all but deserted streets of a section of my hometown known as the Short North. I was doing someone a favor, picking them up at the ungodly hour of 0-dark-forty to transport them to the city Greyhound Bus Depot so that they could catch a 5:00AM ride that would eventually drop them to New York. As usual, I was obnoxiously early, arriving a quarter hour before the agreed time; knowing that my prospective rider would be  late by about fifteen minutes I drove around a bit in the general area around their residence so that I wouldn’t be sitting idling in front of their apartment building in a no stopping zone.

I spent as a wee lad a number of Saturdays in a building on the outskirts of that neighborhood, long before the well-gridded streets which were then called “slums” became gentrified. My father managed the local branch office of a truck leasing company and for some reason believed that a regular Saturday trip to his office would encourage me to follow his example, instead of stirring up my inner brat resentment caused by my preference for Saturday morning television.. The office in the 1950s was full of cigar smoke — one of the company’s salesmen had a penchant for stogies — and absent of television, books, comics, or magazines. There wasn’t much to do. I was too young to do a credible brake job on an eighteen wheeler (and remain so to this day!) and as a result I spent most of my time hanging out in the garage listening to the mechanics tell jokes, some of which I understood but most of which I didn’t.  While most of the commercial buildings in that area have been torn down or rehabbed into tony apartment complexes or flavor of the month taverns that change owners, names, and identities every eighteen months, the structure which housed my father’s old office building still sits there and is still used for its original purpose by a different company. I like to drive by there when I am in the area. Sometimes I can almost imagine that I see my six year old self staring wistfully out of one of the office windows onto the street, yearning for escape. The primary attraction in my adult life, however, is the reminder that I don’t have to stop there and can go wherever I want whenever I want, rather than spending five hours in the building on a Saturday trying to figure out ways not to get into trouble. I guess my inner brat still resides within me. Age is also a factor. I was told by an elderly friend, shortly before he passed, that aging is like living in reverse: people start treating you like a child, taking away privileges and objects (like car keys and credit cards) and restricting your activities. Sometimes I need a reminder of what I have now, and what may be lurking ahead. Driving past that old office building helps.

I accordingly decided to kill some time by doing just that. Nothing much had changed from my last brief visit at the beginning of summer. I drove by slowly, looking for the ghost image of my young reflection, when I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye. I faced forward and quickly slammed on the brakes. A large tabby cat had picked that moment to dart in front of my slowly moving car. I didn’t hit it, which was good for the cat, but bad for the reason for its haste: it had a large rat in its mouth. The rodent’s anterior and posterior parts were draped resignedly over Garfield’s right and left jaws, riding up slightly on the kitty’s lower canines. The big hunter obviously wanted to get back to base and enjoy the meal before the adrenaline dissolved. Adrenaline in a prey animal’s bloodstream is like chocolate to a predator; it makes everything better. I watched the big hunter scurry off into the darkness and wished him godspeed.

Longtime Saturday morning visitors to The Kill Zone know that I love metaphors. I’ve been thinking about that cat all day, with the cat as the writer, the rat as the story, and the hunt as the idea. You’re the cat. Chase that idea down. Don’t let it go. If you do it just might scamper away, never to return. It might even be caught and eaten by someone else. Don’t fall into the old “no one will want to read this” trap of giving up on your concept before you’ve even tried to write it. All you will see is a blank expanse of page. All you will hear is the sound of wheels spinning. Unlike six-year old Joey, you can control your destiny. Put both hands on the keyboard and go where you want to go. Oh… if you’re driving, keep your eyes on the road. And when you cross the street, look both ways first, no matter what you are carrying, or how delicious it might be.  

As always, I’m curious…what was your least favorite adult-imposed task that you remember from your childhood? If you are inclined, please tell us what, and why. It might be a good starting place for something bigger. Thank you.