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.

Giving Thanks

(c) Copyright Uncooked Media UK. All rights reserved.

I am going to meander a bit today. Please bear with me. I’ll get to the point somewhere in here and probably veer off again, but I’m sure you’ll understand.

I received a bit of sinus-clearing news early Thursday morning a couple of weeks ago. Let me give it to you in the manner in which my older son gave it to me, via cell phone:

“Samantha (his daughter, my granddaughter) is fine. She got hit by a car on her way to school.”

Samantha and my son live three doors and a crosswalk away from her middle school. She was crossing said street — in the crosswalk, with the light, in a school zone  — when a woman turning left struck her from the side and rear. Samantha went up on the hood of the car, rolled off, and fell to the ground. She, fortunately, landed on her side (as opposed to on a joint or, God forbid, her head). I won’t go into detail with regard to the legalities of what happened afterward as that is still unwinding (I incidentally while questioning Samantha about what happened used some of the techniques which Sue Colletta noted in her wonderful TKZ post of November 5). What is important is that Samantha is okay so far (and yes, we are keeping an eye on her) but she picked herself up, submitted to medical examinations, and went to school the next day, where she basked (probably the wrong word) in the vague celebrity that shines on someone of her age (she’ll be 12 next week) who experiences a near catastrophe and comes out of it (relatively) unscathed.

Am I grateful or thankful that she was apparently uninjured? I’m not sure. “Thankful” and “grateful are appropriate but don’t quite cover it. I don’t think I have the words. I am considering, somewhat seriously, leaving all of my worldly goods behind and joining a monastery where I can devote every waking moment to prayer and good works as a small step toward balancing the scales that tipped so that Samantha could emerge intact. There is at any given moment only a hair’s breadth between a sigh of relief and the scream of anguish that herald’s the worst day of someone’s life. The birthday party we will be having on Thanksgiving might have been spent in a hospital waiting room. Or worse.

So. Flash forward to this past Tuesday. I had been trying to think of something, some minor gesture, to uplift Samantha a bit and tilt her world away from what happened and into the right direction. I happened to be in one of the local Half-Price Books stores and passed by the magazine section. There was a space jammed with a magazine called Weekly Shonen Jump which I quickly recognized as a manga magazine. For those of you over the age of forty — and what follows is a bit of an oversimplification — manga is the general name for a Japanese comic book. It is distinguished from anime, which is what we might characterize as a Japanese animated movie. The styles of both media are the same and very distinctive. I am not a fan — it gives me a headache to read/watch it — but Samantha is a huge follower. Weekly Shonen Jump runs upward to five hundred pages an issue and reprints previously published stories. Its nickname in both its American and Japanese incarnations is “phone book,” because of its thickness. The English language version (which is what I had found) goes for a cover price of five dollars an issue which isn’t a bad price at all. The bookstore was selling the issues for fifty cents each, which is, um, even better. An extremely helpful clerk who saw me looking at the magazines directed me to another stack of a publication titled Neo, a slick-paged magazine which concerns itself with manga, anime, and Japanese video games. I bought the entire kit and kaboodle of both, dropping around ten bucks for seventeen magazines that ultimately took up most of the room in the box I needed to transport them to my car.

Samantha’s school was just letting out by then so I drove over to my son’s place and showed up at the front door with the box in hand. When Samantha got home from school, I handed the box over with the words, “For you.” She opened the box and started going through it, making exclamatory noises which were followed by the awe-struck statement, “This is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen in my life.”

(c) VIZ Media. All rights reserved.

Thankful? Grateful? Yes. My granddaughter is alive, well, and loves to read. Like I said earlier, however, I don’t quite have the words to express how I feel. I’m thankful for other things. I wake up in my own bed every morning and can put my own feet — I still have both of them. Many people don’t — on my own floor and can put on my own clothes without assistance. And I have clothes. I also have windows and doors that I can open and close at will in a house that I own free and clear in a neighborhood that is (for the most part) quiet and peaceful. If my reach occasionally (okay, frequently) exceeds my grasp, I have both arms, both hands, and ten digits with which to fail gloriously and otherwise. I also have an ungrateful and unappreciative cat who somehow still elicits the best out of me several times a day, every day. There’s food in the refrigerator and the water, heat and air conditioning works on demand. I can still work at my job and if I get tired of it I can go do something else. I have four wonderful children, who are each successful in their own way. And. I get to do this — communicate with you — which is what I am doing right now. I am thankful for you. But to have a granddaughter who loves to read and appreciates a small gift that elicits a response like the one she gave o me…as I keep saying, I don’t have the words.

Happy Thanksgiving. Please keep reading, and for those of you who fight the good writing fight, please continue to do so in order that Samantha and every child who loves to read will have great stories to enjoy for the rest of their lives. May they and you be safe for all of the remainder of their days and yours. Thank you.

10+

Requiescat in Pace

Photo courtesy John Ehrlich on unsplash.com

This past Thursday, November 1, we lost a great and terrific guy named David Williams. Many of the regular contributors and visitors to The Kill Zone know that name.  

David told me on a number of occasions that the very first thing he did every morning was sit down in front of his computer and read the daily post of The Kill Zone. When David would choose to comment he always made the post just a little bit better, no matter how superlative it was to begin with. I told him quite truthfully that it was that knowledge which frequently gave me the inspiration to write something when it seemed like the well was dry. It’s accordingly more than fitting that David is the subject of today’s post. Hopefully, I will be forgiven for stating that today he is undoubtedly reading this from a place of comfort which he has earned and deserved. I accordingly really, really need to make this post a good one.

I got to know David through correspondence generated by The Kill Zone. We then became the modern day equivalent of “pen pals” through email and telephone. I learned over time that David wore a number of hats.  He was a minister, theologian, photographer, author, and student of the human condition. David was a man of deep and abiding faith which, in spite of personal obstacles (and maybe because of them) inspired him to bring comfort to others in their hours of greatest need. He also took it upon himself to record and share the images of God’s creations with photographs that he took, each and all of which had something to recommend them, something that an ordinary observer might have missed. The stories which David wrote may not have made it to prime time, but they were surely worthy of it. The most recent one he shared with me — rejected inexplicably a couple of times — haunts me still. Most importantly, however, David was a husband, father, and friend. David’s wife Betsy was (and is, for all eternity) his rock, particularly during these past few months, weeks, and days.  David’s good cheer and generosity of spirit — traits which he exhibited right up to the end of his life — belied a number of health problems, discomforting at best and excruciatingly painful at worse. They, to paraphrase Hemingway, took him from us gradually and then suddenly. His major concerns in his final days, as always, were not for himself but for his family and his Creator.

I miss you, buddy. I wish I had made it to Kansas City to fang down on a slab or two of ribs with you. Maybe you can arrange to have the grill heated up when I pass over to your side. Failing that, I’ll certainly need your influence with the powers that be, not to mention a miracle or two. In the meanwhile, you are neither gone from our hearts nor forgotten from our memories. It is with the following words, the Prayer of St. Francis, that I will remember you:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

 

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.

Requiescat in Pace, David.

 

12+

From Cool to Heat

Photo courtesy Eddie Howell on unsplash.com

The weather has turned cool since last we met. Each area of the United States has its identifiable seasons, from the Deep South (where New Orleans has two, those being “summer” and “February”) to the West (where, as Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “The coldest winter I’ve ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”). Ohio has a more severe line of demarcation. The heat of summer at this time of year sinks into the chill of fall. Leaves drop. One can’t um, leave them go without raking or mulching for too long, as snow will almost inevitably fall by November. One sets the thermostat from “cool” to “warm” and calls for the furnace check-up, even as it seems as if but a few weeks ago it was the air conditioning system that was being checked out. The circle, it seems, moves faster and faster.

I’ve of late been feeling the rapidity of the turning of my own seasons. I came across a passage in a new book entitled THE DARKNESS by Ragnar Jonasson. The protagonist is a police inspector who is being involuntarily retired as she approaches the age of sixty-five, muses that she feels little different than she did in her forties, other than for perhaps some minor fatigue. Just so. I’m waking up at 3 AM much too frequently but I’m doing it in my bed in my house and know where I am. There are no real complaints there. Still, I am increasingly aware that the miles in the rear view mirror are substantially greater than those between me and the final destination, and I increasingly doubt whether I’m going to get there before the warranty expires. Most of my close friends are a few years older than I — in their early to mid-seventies — and seem to be hitting a wall. One of them,  who I have known for well over fifty years, advised me yesterday that he was not up to making the two-hour drive to visit me this weekend due to vision problems. He reminded me that when we lived on the west coast he would call me and say, “Tahoe!” and off we would go, making the six-hour round trip to Nevada and back on the same day as if we had not a care in the world. We didn’t. Not then. It was high noon. We are well past that. The sun hasn’t kissed the horizon, but the lengthening shadows hint that, from our landlubber perspective, it is well-nigh approaching the yardarm. Sunset occurred for another friend last week. His body mercifully slipped loose of its moorings last week and followed his essence, which had been stolen by Alzheimer’s Disease, piece by piece, over the past two years. It’s not the way I want to go — I would prefer to pass either while writing at my desk or at the hands of an irate husband — but we don’t always get a choice. Shakespeare’s untimely frost follows no calendar. 

 

Photo courtesy Eddie Howell on unsplash.com

What more to do? I have four wonderful children, each accomplished in their individual ways, and a terrific granddaughter. There might be time for one more dog. I think I’ve made more people smile than otherwise which is something that not everyone can truthfully claim. It’s been a good ride and there are many more miles and adventures to come. I hope. The lesson I’ve learned, and which I am making so bold as to impart to you —particularly those of you here who are younger — is don’t waste a day, or even an hour. Decide what you want to do and work toward it, whether it is writing the Great American Novel — someone will do it, so why not you? — adopting a stretch of highway, or visiting every Sonic, Tim Horton’s, and Cracker Barrel in the country. Regardless of what you want to do, there are only a finite number of times that you get to switch from cool to heat and back again. Cherish each one, and enjoy them.

Photo courtesy Pathecho Grid on unsplash.com

 

6+

Don’t Be Afraid of the “No”

Photo by Alan Hardman from unsplash.com

A few weeks ago my granddaughter was at my house and started doing what I call “the ask dance.” This consists of 1) silently wandering into and out of whatever room I’m in, 2) twirling around, and 3) coming up to the table and drumming on it until I say, “What’s your ask?” She told me — Donatos Pizza — to which I readily acquiesced. I decided, given that she is a pre-teen, that it was time for “the talk.” The topic was “don’t be afraid of the ‘no.’” I explained that in most cases she would hear (and has heard) “yes” when she’s asked for something of me. After all, grandparents and grandchildren have a special relationship given that they have a common enemy. I went on to tell her that if she encountered a “no” from me it would most likely be a result of the impossibility of performance and that we would find a way to get to “yes” or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The only time a problem would occur is if she was so afraid of “no” that she didn’t ask at all. At that point, what she fears — “no” — becomes the de facto answer.

We all hate “no.” We hear it constantly when we are little and helpless as we reach toward candles that are lit and the tails of sleeping dogs, when we are old and confused and reach for car keys and checkbooks, and occasionally at all points in between. It stands between us and what we want (other than when it’s used in the context of emptying the dishwasher or mowing the lawn). “Yes” is the key that opens doors, moves mountains, and makes dreams come true. “No” disappoints, derails, and detours. “Yes” is always possible. “No” is occasionally unavoidable.

It’s important to understand as writers or as anything else, that “no,” as destructive as it is, is much less powerful than “yes.” You can get turned down a hundred times by agents and publishers and have your dreams crushed and strewn across the landscape. Get out that broom, dustpan, and epoxy, put everything back together, and try again. And again. One “yes” will outweigh each “no” and will blow them away. Keep chasing that “yes,” but remember that you’ll go through a lot of negativity to get there. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it for a moment as you move it out of your path. It’s in the way of your “yes,” which is waiting for you and your dream just down the road. That is true whether it’s a Donatos pizza, your manuscript, or anything else. Just don’t be afraid of the “no.”

14+

The Bare Bones of a Story: SKELETON, a First Page Critique

Photo courtesy Max Bender from unsplash.com

Hello, Anon, and thank you for submitting the beginning of Skeleton, your work in progress, to us at The Kill Zone for our First Page Critique. Let us begin:

I slammed to the ground. A boltof pain cracked through my body then slid away. A dull throb took its place.The bust-up was the right arm. Between elbow and wrist. I looked at my arm and flexed it. A jagged edge of bone stretched the skin up. A dagger of horror seized my brain. My core instinct said not to move. But I had to get home.

I staggered to sloppy feet, heldthe damaged wing close to my body and stumbled down the sidewalk. As long as I didn’t move the arm, pain was secondary to fear, the ‘my mother will been raged’ type fear. What were you doing swinging from limbs of that pine tree in the first place? I could hear the shrill voice echo those words. But how mad could she get? I mean today was my tenth birthday and how mad could a mother be at her only daughter’s tenth birthday party? And why was I thinking about that now, twenty-five years later as I sat in a chair, high, wing back, cloth I thought. I couldn’t move. I could turn my head, but nothing below the shoulders worked. Maybe that was the connection. I couldn’t move the broken arm then and I couldn’t move anything now.

The room was gold and red with a hint of incense in the cold air. It was something out of an Agatha Christi novel. I swallowed, took a deep breath, scanned the room with my eyes. Floor to ceiling heavy draperies. A gold statue of a ten-inch Buddha in the corner. Thick tapestries hung on walls depicting combat with horses, spears and doomed men. I wasn’t stressed. My practice of daily meditation born of my Buddhist belief kicked in. I remained calm, focused.

A solid door, painted deep gold with carvings of dragons creaked open and he walked in. He was maybe five feet five inches, stocky build poured into a three-piece suit, vest and all the trimmings.  

He carried a single manila folder, walked in front of me and sat in the edge of a leather topped captains’ desk. His eyes were set close to a narrow nose; the only hair on his head was a tight goatee, closely groomed. He dropped the folder on the desk, crossed his arms and a small puff of air expelled through soft nostrils. He was Vietnamese. Some of that blood ran through me. I knew his essence.

“There has been a mistake,” he said in a voice that sounded like he was telling me a bed-time story.

“I must apologize,” he continued.” This is embarrassing at the least and inexcusable at best. This is not how I operate. Pressure applied from the client should not influence how results are obtained. However, to be human is to err human. And that misfortune is what has brought us together.”

 

Thank you for submitting, Anon. Please permit me to be blunt.  The bad outweighs the good here. I had a lot of trouble with the first couple of paragraphs of Skeleton because they are confusing, poorly written, and full of typographical errors. It gets better further down the page. Most editors, assistants, and agents (not to mention readers) wouldn’t have gotten that far, however. They would have read the first paragraph or two and told you that they weren’t interested if they told you anything at all.

 

First: please proofread. You have words running into each other, you misspell “Agatha Christie” as “Agatha Christi” — oh, the humanity! — and use a hyphen (“bed-time”) where you shouldn’t. Also please format. Lynne, the wonderful person who, among many other tasks, sorts these First Page Critiques out and sends them to us at The Kill Zone, mentioned to me that when she originally received Skeleton it had not been formatted. Putting it into Google Drive improved it but if your prospective agent or editor wants your manuscript in Word they’re going to be unhappy if you don’t format according to their specifications. Get you indentations, headers, footers and spacing all together and consistent. Yes, sometimes one or more of these things jump for some reason. Send it to yourself first and make sure it looks like you want it to. If it doesn’t, find out what is wrong and fix it.

Second: It’s fine if you want to jump from the past to the present, but give your reader a chance to get the thread of the story first. One minute your protagonist is ten years old, the next she is thirty-five. If you want to start off with the past, fine, but let us know as soon as possible that we’re in the narrator’s past. Try something like this:

I broke my arm on my tenth birthday. I was swinging from a tree limb and let go either too soon or too late. I’m still not sure which, a quarter-century after the fact.  I had been looking forward to my party in one moment and in the next I was falling and then screaming as I fell. I hit the ground hard and a bolt of pain cracked through my body. It was quickly replaced by a dull throb in my right arm, between the elbow and wrist, where a jagged piece of bone now stretched the skin upward where it never should have been. I was horrified. I just wanted to lay there but I had to get home. My pain was secondary to fear. I was afraid of my mother’s reaction, even though it was her only daughter’s birthday, or maybe because of it. I could hear her shrill voice in my head before I even got home. “WHAT were you DOING swinging from the pine tree in the FIRST place?!” I was good at predicting how people, whether families and strangers, would react, even back then.

That takes care of the past, Anon, and we know it’s the past. Now let’s transition to the present:

I couldn’t move my broken arm back then. Flash forward to the adult me, sitting in a high, winged back chair. I couldn’t move at all. Oh, I could turn my head, but nothing below my shoulders worked. The range of vision which I had wasn’t much. Maybe that’s why I was thinking about that immobile broken arm now. I didn’t appreciate how good I had it as a kid.

Three: I kind of like how you describe the man, but I’m not sure if your protagonist knows who or what he is. Let’s fix that up. And while we’re doing that, tell us a bit about your narrator:

The range of vision which I had wasn’t much, but I could see enough to know that I was in trouble. There was a solid door, painted deep gold with carvings of dragons, in the wall in front of me. It creaked open and a stranger — maybe five feet five inches, with a stocky build poured into a three-piece suit, vest and all the trimmings — walked in. He looked Vietnamese, a little like me. I nicknamed him “Diem” in my head. He walked over to the captain’s desk just inside my right field of vision and sat down, dropping the manila folder he carried on a desk blotter. “I’m sorry, Miss Tree,” Diem said. Oh, so he knows me, I thought. “There has been a mistake.” He crossed his arms and a small puff of air expelled through the soft-looking nostrils in his narrow nose, framed by his close-set eyes. ”This is embarrassing at the least and inexcusable at best. It is not how I operate. Pressure applied from the client should not influence how results are obtained. However, to be human is to err human. And that misfortune is what has brought us together.” The ceiling lights reflected off of Diem’s bald head, an expanse that was uniform and undisturbed until it reached his tight, closely groomed goatee. I thought of a crude joke about beards that my ex-husband used to make, a joke that I hated when we were married. Now, sitting in that room with a stranger in front of me and all but unable to move, I had to force myself to stop laughing.

I hope that helps, Anon. Your concept reminds me just a little of the Sax Rohmer books which I absolutely adored in my youth (and which I still do, actually). There’s promise here. You have a story, but you don’t have a book or even a first page just yet. Check out the books which my fellow TKZers have for sale about the craft of writing, get one with the basics, study it closely, and go for it. Good luck.

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet while our wonderful readers, visitors, and contributors make their own comments. Thank you for submitting to us, Anon, and keep trying.

 

4+

Do What You Gotta Do

Photo: “Highway Landscape” courtesy George Bohunicky from unsplash.com

 

It’s kind of difficult to be an unpublished author these days. You have to start, finish, and get published, and each step is heavier than the last. Even worse, it seems like everyone else who tries it succeeds. Look at all of the books that are published every month. It seems like everyone has a book out but you.

That isn’t true, of course. What you see in bookstores, on websites, and other outlets for book sales comprises the tip of the literary spear. The point, or tip, as it were, consists of people with varying level of talent who absolutely, positively refused to take “no” for an answer, and who particularly didn’t take it from the familiar face they confront in the mirror every morning. You can’t control every step of the process, but you can control part of it, the part that is in front of you. It is like driving. You can’t control other drivers, road hazards, or unexpected engine failure, but you can control something, at least, as long as you keep your hands on the wheel and your foot within reach of the gas and brake pedals. Don’t surrender control to chance. Otherwise, you’ll never get where you are going. I, of course, have a real-world story about this, one that has nothing directly to do with writing but everything to do with what is possible in the face of adversity.

I had a part-time job working in a supermarket during my high school days in the late 1960s. I was on my break during a particularly busy Saturday afternoon when someone hesitantly came up to the table where I was sitting. He appeared as if he wanted to talk to me but didn’t quite know how.

I didn’t know him, but I did know of him. “Steve” had been a couple of years behind me in grade school where he resided at the nadir of the Mariana Trench of the social order.  I had heard stories about Steve’s family and home life. The sad punchline to all of those tales was that he and his siblings didn’t have squat, either materially or parenterally. His situation was so bad that no one picked on him, probably for fear that whatever bad luck mycobacteria clung to him would rub off. He was also incredibly shy in the manner of an individual who has the words  “kick me” indelibly inked on his forehead.

I hadn’t seen Steve in over four years and had never in my life spoken a word to him. I accordingly was somewhat surprised when he approached me. I nodded and said, “Hey,” the way one would when he sees someone he recognizes but doesn’t really know. Steve, without any further social dancing, sat down next to me and said, “My girlfriend’s moving.”

My initial and unstated reaction was So? I realized that such a retort would be kind of harsh at the least, so I bit it back and instead asked him, “Well, uh, who’s your girlfriend?” He said, “Tabitha.” I asked, as if I were in the middle of a knock-knock joke, “Tabitha who?”  “Tabitha Stanley,” he said.

Whoa. I had a year or so before briefly “dated” “Tabitha Stanley,” who had been in one of my classes.  We kind of slowly and carefully drifted together and then painlessly drifted apart without any apparent damage to anyone all within the space of a few weeks. We remained casual friends, speaking in the halls, but that was the extent of our contact. I hadn’t exactly kept tabs on her so I had no idea at all as to how she and Steve had connected. Since Steve didn’t attend our high school and would not have had the opportunity to observe us I could only guess that at some point in their relationship they had gone through the boring begats of their romantic histories so that 1) my name had come up as a footnote and 2) my reflection in her rearview mirror was more favorable than otherwise, given that Steve felt he could approach me, however uncomfortably, and tell me that she was moving.

I at first couldn’t understand why he was telling me. I quickly figured it out from his demeanor. He was asking me for advice. He looked as sad without crying as anyone I had encountered up to that point. I also, from knowing his backstory, figured that Tabitha was probably the best thing — maybe the only good thing — that had ever happened to him. Stalling for time, I asked him where Tabitha was moving. He named a city two states away. That was a much larger distance and potentially insurmountable distance then than it is now.

He just sat there then, waiting for me to offer him some wisdom. I don’t know where my advice to him was conceived but from somewhere inside my totally clueless, hormonally driven, eighteenish self, I told him to stay in contact with her. Remember that this was in the late 1960s. They couldn’t text or skype or tweet or, um, send each other selfies or emails over cell phones or computers. There were snail mail letters and landline phone calls. That was pretty much it. I  told him to write to her as often as he could and to call her once a week. He told me that his house didn’t have a phone. I told him to save up his quarters and use a pay phone, but to call her, to get a job and scrape up enough money to send her flowers on her birthday, and to send her a card once in a while. I also advised him that, when he got the chance and the ability to drive to where she lived, which was that city two states and a world away, he needed to do that, or, failing that, to take a bus. It’ll either work out, I told him, or it won’t. “If it does, you’ll know it. If it doesn’t, you’ll know that, too, and you can find someone else,” I said. “Either way, do what you gotta do.”

My break was over. I wished Steve good luck and went back to work. I never saw him again. I actually never even thought of him, or Tabitha, or the entire conversation until earlier this week, a half century on. I ran into a high school friend, an encounter which resulted in an hour of “do you remember” and “whatever happened to what’s-her-name.” Later that evening I started looking folks up on Facebook. I happened to think of Tabitha for some reason and checked to see if she had a page. She did. It features a picture of her with Steve. They’re married, living in that city two states away, and have at least one son, a man in his forties who seems to be an upstanding guy with kids of his own. Steve still looks shy, but he also has the demeanor of someone who won the Powerball at least once. So does Tabitha. I’m reasonably certain that neither one of them ever split the atom, wrote a bestseller, recorded a Top 40 hit, or amassed a fortune, but they look like they’ve done just fine, even if they had to overcome geography, background, poverty, and undoubtedly a bunch of other seemingly insurmountable obstacles to get to that photo on Facebook, some five decades on.

So. Tell yourself anything you want, but don’t look in the mirror in the morning (or any part of the day) and say that you can’t do something because you there are too many too manys in your life. There aren’t too many books, or too many obligations, or too many expenses, or too many obstacles in your life to keep you from doing what you want to do. There are just enough barriers in front of you so that once you overcome them you can appreciate what you have and get what you want. If you don’t believe me, think of Steve and Tabitha. Every word I’ve told you (except for their names) is true. If they can reach their dream, so can you.

11+

Nextdoor

If you are looking for ideas for your story or your novel, or characters to populate them, you need to join Nextdoor. Nextdoor is an online social network (isn’t everything, in some way?) which is organized around neighborhoods which are close to you. You just go to nextdoor.com, sign up, and you find yourself with access to all sorts of things, such as reports of suspicious activity, questions about what is permitted locally (and what isn’t), recommendations for everything from home power washing specialists and auto mechanics to tree trimmers and appliance repairmen, and lost and found (I’ll talk a little more about that last one in a minute). Once you’re a member of Nextdoor you get emails when someone posts about a topic such as an injured deer in their yard or a street closure, and you can answer back or post on a topic thread. You can also just read the threads that are posted, watching the occasional disagreement get contentious and then settle down a bit. It’s a bit like Facebook (Nextdoor’s less civil cousin) with its “like” button, except that Nextdoor has a “thank” button instead and for the most part forbids political discussions. After a bit of reading, you can dope out the personalities of your neighbors, whether close by or several streets away, and quickly determine what gets whose undies in a bunch fairly quickly. It is entertaining at the least and occasionally functions as a real-time and constantly evolving cozy mystery setting or, yes, a domestic thriller.  You really should check out the page for your area if you haven’t already.

About that lost and found topic that I mentioned earlier…folks in my area use that primarily for locating or reuniting lost dogs or cats who slip the tether and make a jailbreak for what they consider to be the greener pastures of next door or the next street. Such happened in my own immediate neighborhood last week. My backdoor neighbors have two small children and a dachshund. The dog, named Heika, is blind, but gets around quite well, doing that happy, bouncy doidy-doidy-doidy walking rhythm that dachshunds do. Heika occasionally wanders over to my back door, having learned that the sucker who lives there is always ready with a dog treat. The family’s grandmother is often there watching the two children, who are as polite and well-behaved as any two kids I’ve encountered recently, and I occasionally sit and watch them interact, wondering how the grandmother somehow manages to keep them all corralled.

So. Last Thursday night I was at a local coffeehouse waiting for my AA meeting to start and happened to see that I had gotten a Nextdoor email with the heading “Found weiner type dog.” I opened it and found a photo of Heika doing a Nextdoor star turn courtesy of my next door neighbor, who had found her wandering on our street. Heika had done a Papillon from her loving family one street over in the mistaken belief that the world beyond her marked territory was as nice and friendly as the world within. Dachshunds are the second cousins to beagles but they share that “clever but not smart” inclination to wander that gets them in trouble. I got on the phone, contacted my next door neighbor, contacted Heika’s mommy, and doggy and family were reunited within three minutes of Heika’s photo being posted. My meeting started and all was well with the world, or at least a little corner of it. The ability to do that justifies Nextdoor’s existence all by itself, to my mind.

Do yourself a favor and check Nextdoor out. Even if you don’t contribute you can get a really good idea of what your community is like, not to mention populating your works of fiction with myriad characters or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Maybe you’re already familiar with it. If so, do you have a story to share?

 

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Mail in Your Future

Photo courtesy Nate Bell on unsplash.com

I occasionally like to use this space to inform the wonderful folks who visit here on a frequent or occasional basis about new tools, grand and small, that come to my attention, whether they are writing aids or life hacks or whatever. What I have for you today is something brought to us by the United States Postal Service (USPS) called “informed delivery.”

There are times that ebooks don’t satisfy the craving for a weighty, paperbound novel that you can throw at a spider without risking seventy dollars worth of plastic and electronics. The same is true of email. While email (and texting, its illiterate cousin) is quick and convenient, there is something about receiving physical mail that remains appealing, if you are throwing ninety percent of it into the paper recycle bin. The feature which I recently discovered allows you a daily, somewhat imperfect peek into the future of what you will be getting.

I am referring to “informed delivery.” It is free (ah! Now I have your attention!). It is also easy to sign up for it. Go here, see if your zip code and address are with the program (more are added on a daily basis), and set up an account. Within a day or two, you will start receiving a daily email from the USPS which will include embedded images of the envelopes which you will (well, which you should) receive in the mail that day as well as notification of any packages which will be (um, are supposed to be) delivered. It isn’t perfect. You will only see letter-sized envelopes that are processed through automated equipment. Sometimes something slips through that isn’t pictured and other times something that is pictured doesn’t show up for a day or two. For the most part, however, it works as advertised. It is particularly convenient for those of us whose mail delivery occurs so late that we need a flashlight to navigate our way to the box. Sometimes it just isn’t worth it and informed delivery will let you give you at least a hint of a thumbs up or thumbs down.

For those of you who have never heard of this and decide to try it out, enjoy. If you have been using informed delivery, do you like it? And for everyone: have you encountered a technological life hack recently that hasn’t received a lot of notice but that has been helpful to you? If so, please share if you are so inclined.

And thank you for stopping by and letting me be a part of your day and for being a part of mine.

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First Page Critique: THE DIVINITY COMPLEX

(Photo courtesy FancyCrave from unsplash.com)

Hello, TKZers! Please join me in giving a hounddog-howdy to Anon, who has bravely submitted the first page of The Divinity Complex for our consideration. Anon, take it away!

 

Title:  The Divinity Complex

We have no choice when it comes to life and death. But sometimes others make the choice for us.

Chris Martinez pulled into Jimmie’s Travel Center early Sunday morning. He parked his blue Chevy Impala in the spot closest to the front door and walked into the convenience store. The entire journey from car to register should have taken no more than a couple of seconds. But it took Chris a bit longer because every few steps, he stopped and looked back at the car. It was apparent something was wrong…very wrong.

Randy, the thirty-year-old attendant on duty, watched from behind the cash register. He thought the customer’s behavior seemed odd, but then he reminded himself of where he was. Jimmie’s was right off interstate I-95 in South Georgia. It was somewhere between late Saturday night and early Sunday morning. Under those set of circumstances, it would have been odd not to see something out of the ordinary. It wasn’t a matter of if, just when.

When Chris arrived at the cash register, he looked Randy straight in the eyes. He cleared his throat as if he wanted to say something. But he couldn’t tell what was on his mind. Chris had to be careful of the words he chose. That was because the phone tucked in his shirt pocket was recording the conversation. Chris knew if he said the wrong thing something terrible would happen. He had no choice but to play by the script.

If he wanted to stay alive, Chris would have to rely on his ability to send a single telepathic message. Being a carpenter by trade and not a psychic, made the chance of success infinitesimal. But Chris had to at least try. It was his only hope.

Chris locked onto Randy’s eyes and concentrated. He screamed as loud as he could into his own head hoping it would get Randy’s attention.

Help me…Help me…Help me

Sweating and trembling, Chris handed over a twenty and two fives. All he could muster was a half-hearted but utterly fake smile. It was apparent something wasn’t right.

“30 dollars…on…uh…Pump…10,” Chris said. That’s all he could say. Anything else and there was a good chance someone would die. Chris looked at Randy again.

Help me…Help me…Help me

“30 on 10, you got it, buddy,” Randy responded.

 

Anon, I absolute worship road trip stories, particularly those that wander off the freeway and into parts that are at least initially unknown. You accordingly had me from the jump. There is a glaring problem that jumps out at me, however, and it leads to others. It’s fairly easy to fix, so let’s roll up our shirtsleeves and see if we can Chris back on the road.

The main problem that I had with your first page from The Divinity Complex is that the narrative point of view keeps shifting. You’re using the “third person multiple.” narrative. That means that you are describing the action through the eyes, ears, and thoughts of multiple characters in the third person. That is fine, but it gets confusing when you shift so quickly.  You go from Chris to Randy to Chris again in the course of three paragraphs and then seem to shift into third-person omniscient, where the third person narrator knows everything at all once. A number of books shift point of view from character to character throughout. There is nothing wrong with that at all. I recommend, though that at the beginning and for at least the first couple of pages you stick with one character’s point of view before shifting to another. Let’s start with Chris, as you did, and keep things focused on him and his perceptions:

— You step away from Chris before the first paragraph is even done. “It was apparent that something was wrong…very wrong.” Apparent to who? Whose observation is that? Randy’s? We haven’t even met Randy yet. Let’s drop that sentence altogether. Let’s cut that last sentence and use something like this, instead: “He couldn’t help himself.”

— You’ve introduced Chris so let’s bring Randy into the narrative through Chris’s perception. How about if we eliminate the second paragraph (but not throw it away altogether; more on that below) and go for something like this:

The doormat sensor went “dingdongdingdong” as Chris walked into the store. The cashier stood at the far end of it behind the counter, holding an open copy of Cavalier, eying Chris with a look of uneasy surliness. Chris thought that the guy looked to be about his own age, thirty or so. As Chris approached the counter he could read the name tag — “Randy” — pinned to his blue smock. Randy looked to Chris as if he wanted to be anywhere but where he was, which was just how Chris felt.

— Let’s take a look at those fourth and fifth paragraphs:

If he wanted to stay alive, Chris would have to rely on his ability to send a single telepathic message. Being a carpenter by trade and not a psychic, made the chance of success infinitesimal. But Chris had to at least try. It was his only hope.

Chris locked onto Randy’s eyes and concentrated. He screamed as loud as he could into his own head hoping it would get Randy’s attention.

— Anon, these don’t quite work. I get what you’re going for, but if Chris doesn’t have telepathic powers what makes him think he’s going to suddenly develop them? And the third sentence — “ Being a carpenter by trade and not a psychic, made the chance of success infinitesimal.” You don’t need the comma for sure. What if you change the sentence order and a couple of words?  See if this is better:

Chris wanted — needed — telepathic powers in the worst way. The problem was that he was a carpenter, not a psychic. He locked onto Randy’s eyes, hoping he could in some way communicate that he was in trouble without using words.

— I do like what you did here, telling us a bit about Chris — he’s a carpenter, which is interesting — so good on you. Keep doing that. Drop a few more breadcrumbs like that throughout the first couple of pages so that we get to know Chris and begin to empathize with him.

— Let’s drop down now to the seventh paragraph, the one that begins with “Sweating and trembling…” It ends with “It was apparent that something wasn’t right.” Again, where is that thought coming from?  Have we switched point of view to Randy again, who is looking at Chris “sweating and trembling” all over the place? Again, let’s keep the point of view with Chris while we change that last sentence a bit, using some of that second paragraph that we removed but did not throw away:

Chris was sure that Randy could tell that something wasn’t right with him. That didn’t mean that Randy would do anything about it. Jimmie’s was right off I-95 in South Georgia. Chris figured that it would probably be odd for Randy,   to not see something out of the ordinary at this godforsaken hour and at the back end of Bumfreak, Egypt. There was no help here, for sure.

Notice that I changed “somewhere between late night and early Sunday morning” to “this godforsaken hour.” The reason that I did that was that you already established in the first paragraph that things are taking place early Sunday morning. If you want to give the impression that it’s really early then give the time or mention that it’s “full dark” or even “no see” (as they say in the cotton fields).

— When/if you want to change the point of view to Randy you might want to remove Chris from the scene altogether. Have Chris leave the convenience store. Skip a couple of lines, begin a new paragraph or chapter, and switch the third person narrative from Chris to Randy. You can do anything from having Randy decide, yeah, that guy was weird even for the night shift, and calling the police, to pulling out a burner phone and calling an unknown person and saying, “Yeah, your pigeon was just in here, right on schedule. He looked REALLY shook up.” You can have all sorts of fun with this. Just make sure that it’s plausible.

I hope this helps, Anon. My rewriting is merely illustrative. There are several different ways to follow my suggestions and you should follow your heart. Seriously, I LOVE stories that involve gas stations off of the highway.  I want to love this one. I kind of already do, warts and all. I’m just not ready to buy it coffee yet, gaze into its eyes, and have it throw me over its shoulder and carry me off.

I will now make a valiant and probably futile attempt to stay uncharacteristically quiet while some of the finest folks in the world — our readers at TKZ — comment and offer additional suggestions. Thank you, Anon, for participating in our First Page Critique by sending us the first page of The Divinity Complex!

 

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Inspired by a Good Deed

 

Photo courtesy www.clipartxtras.com

I write this while taking a break from an interesting if long-delayed project. I have a bed in the basement which has been buried by boxes which have accumulated over the past twenty-four years. The bed is suddenly needed the boxes need to be moved, the contents examined, and determinations made with respect to keeping or disposing of the contents. I have been working on this at the rate of one box per hour, with fifteen minutes allocated for each box. The fifteen minutes is broken down as follows: 1) kick box to dislodge spiders hiding within — ten minutes; 2) carry box upstairs — thirty seconds; 3) go through contents of box — four minutes thirty seconds. I’ve made great progress but it’s been somewhat depressing in a way.

You might be surprised to learn that many of the boxes contained books. I don’t remember reading a lot of them, and it’s depressing on a number of levels. The primary one is that there were and are a LOT of books out there. Many of this lot were published before there was such a thing as Facebook or Twitter, so that the author could not instantaneously announce to the world when the book would be published, when the book was published, when the book was reviewed, and so one. One had to rely on email. I have no idea what an author did before that, other than to hope that a kindly clerk at Walden’s or a knowledgeable librarian would recommend their book to a prospective reader. Still…look at all the darn books. One might ask oneself, “Why bother writing? All the stories have been told.”

The answer is that if you have a story, write it. A good story stands on its own. People empathize with it. One can also take the basics of it and work it, maybe twist it around a bit, and make it different.

It may also surprise you that I have an example. Let’s start with a bit of backstory.  I misspent my formative high school and college years in Akron, Ohio. One of the few good parts of that experience was making friends in high school with a guy named Michael Trecaso. Michael combined restaurant experience with an innate ability to squeeze a nickel until the buffalo screams to succeed in a very tough business. He bought an ice cream parlor named Mary Coyle — it was where he worked when we were in high school — and turned it from a popular neighborhood place in the Highland Square neighborhood into a destination restaurant.

Photo courtesy Michael Trecaso’s Mary Coyle Restaurant

Another good part of growing up in Akron for me was making friends with a guy we will call P. I have been friends with him for almost as long as I have been friends with Michael. P. is an antique dealer in Akron, which means that he gets to meet a lot of people and hear a lot of stories. Keep in mind that people who live in Akron tend to stay in Akron. Each resident is at best two or three degrees of separation from another. So it is that on one recent afternoon P. was speaking with a husband and wife in their eighties about who they knew, and what had changed in the city. The husband mentioned Mary Coyle. P. mentioned that a friend of his (that would be me) knew the owner. The wife said, “Oh,  Michael Trecaso is the nicest man.” She then told P. a story.

The lady’s father — who we will call F. and who is now deceased — had some fifteen years previously been living in an elder care residence in downtown Akron. One day he caught a bus which took him to a doctor’s appointment near Highland Square. When he finished with the poking, prodding, and sticking he went outside to discover that the perfect summer day that had been present on his trip there had been chased off by storm clouds. It began raining in torrents as he crossed the street to the bus stop, which was located in front of Mary Coyle.

F. had been standing in the downpour for two minutes when he heard someone calling to him. He turned around and the owner of the restaurant — Michael Trecaso as described above — was beckoning to him, calling, “Come stand in the doorway! You’ll get soaked!” F did so. Michael said, “What are you doing out there?” F. said, “Waiting for the bus.” Mike asked F. where he was going. F told him. Michael looked at F. for a second, came to some internal decision, and walked over to the counter. He wrote “Back in thirty minutes” on a sheet of notebook paper and taped it to the front door. Michael then told F “Come on” and gave F. a ride to his residence. F. never forgot that. Neither did his daughter, who tells everyone she meets about it. Michael has told me a lot of stories, but he never told me that one. I don’t think he’s told anyone that story, actually. It would ruin his reputation. I am accordingly telling it now.

You can do a lot with that tale. If you’re Linwood Barclay, your protagonist in a small city could do the good deed and go back to work, only to have the police show up three days later inquiring as to the whereabouts of the elderly man who was last seen getting into his car. If you’re Paula Hawkins, your protagonist sees her long-absent daughter/sister/husband while she is giving an elderly woman with dementia a ride. And so on. That’s just one story. The woods are full of them. Don’t let my tale of a basement full of books discourage you.

I also must note that doing a good deed is its own reward. Should you be in Akron, however, please stop by Mary Coyle at 780 West Market Street to say hello to Michael and give his establishment your patronage. Should you do so, tell him to report to your office or ask him what school he is going to next week. He’ll know who sent you.  

Photo courtesy Michael Trecaso’s Mary Coyle Restaurant

Now…if you are so inclined, I would love to hear about a spontaneous good deed that you or someone you know performed and that has heretofore gone unremarked. We’ll remark upon it. Thank you.

 

 

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