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.

First Page Critique: MERCY KILLER

“Cloud Sculpture” by Berndnaut Smilde, from Architizer. All rights of ownership reserved to respective creators.

Good Saturday to you, and please join me in welcoming today’s Anon to First Page Critique! Anon combines thriller elements with a touch of the supernatural in a work entitled Mercy Killer, which begins as follows:

 

Mercy Killer

I checked the picture on the screen of my cell phone one last time.  Errors were not acceptable in my profession.  The blue light of my phone spilled out into the darkened hospital room that smelled of antiseptic and decaying flesh.  I glanced up at the old man in the bed. An overhead lamp lit his face in a circle of warmth. He was the one. His chest quivered as he drew in a ragged breath. I wondered how many breaths he would take before the end.

His silver blue mist floated in the air above him. I shook my head.  That was not a good sign.  When the mist had become completely detached, I knew that the time had come.  Sometimes the mist still clung to them, but as the hour approached, it tugged and pulled, begging to be free.  I could always tell when the end was near.  The mist told me and this man’s mist was already free. He was ready to die.

I glanced at a photograph on the stand that showed a young man in a suit holding a new born baby with a pink face.  Beside it stood a vase with a blood-red rose. Propped against the vase sat a card that lay open. I stepped close to read the words scrawled in an impeccable hand.  “To my dearest love.”

Crayon pictures of what looked like animals and grass and trees had been taped to the wall.  A photograph of a sailing ship with its sails billowing out before the wind clung to the wall over his bed.  This man had lived in this room for a long time.

I checked the history on my screen.  He had been here for over a year and he was scheduled for death in two days. I glanced at the mist again.  I couldn’t leave him for two days. He was ready now.

The man grimaced and opened his eyes. A hand strayed to his stomach were a cord poked out from under the sheets. I had seen pain before–many times. But I never got used to it. Seeing another human being in pain always sent a stab of sorrow to my heart.  I had endured pain, real pain. My handler told me that that is why I had been chosen for this special task. Not just anyone could do it.

“You have empathy,” she said as she peered down me from over her pink rimmed glasses.  “We need people like you.

 

Anon du jour strikes a mood here, for sure. I currently have a friend in what is known as a “rehabilitation center.” It is a nice one, as such places go, but there are certain things you just can’t clean up and the smell of slow-motion decay is one of them. I’ve been thinking of “Mercy Killer” often over the past few days as I walk through the corridors of the center toward his room. There’s a lot of misery in that place.

Overall, let’s give our Anon some applause for creating mood. I want to clean up a few things, however, to make it even better. I’m also going to propose reshuffling a couple of paragraphs to arguably improve the flow of the story. And…I know Anon uses the word “mist” frequently here, but I can’t think of a way around that. Maybe one of you out there can help.

First paragraph:

—  Errors were not acceptable in my profession. Anon, do you mean that errors were not acceptable in the narrator’s profession, but they are now? If there’s been a change in standards, fine, but if errors will still get the narrator dinged on their performance evaluation, the sentence should read that “Errors are not acceptable…”.  

An overhead lamp lit his face in a circle of warmth. Anon, I kind of get where you’re coming from but let’s cut that sentence off at An overhead lamp lit his face. so that the reader isn’t wondering if the lamp is a heat lamp or an illumination lamp or both.

— Also, let’s cut out the second “breath(s)” in the paragraph so that it reads, “I wonder how many he would take before the end.”

Second paragraph:

Parts of this paragraph — those dealing with the significance of the mist — are redundant. Your protagonist explains that they can tell when the patient is ready to die by the state of the mist, then notes the state of the mist and concludes that the patient is close. Also, you use the word “free” twice in the space of a couple of sentences. Let’s shorten and sharpen this up just a bit. One way to do it would be:

 

His silver blue mist floated in the air above him.  That was not a good sign. I shook my head. Sometimes the mist still clung to them, but as the hour approached, it tugged and pulled, begging for release. This man’s mist was already free. He was ready to die.

Actually, Anon, we’re going to do a bit more with this, combining it with the fifth paragraph when we get there. See below.

Third and Fourth Paragraphs:

— I like these. You do a nice job of putting us in the room, Anon. One typo: “new born” should be “newborn.” You might also combine these paragraphs, but they work fine separately, as well. It’s up to you.

Fifth paragraph:

— I recommend combining this with the second paragraph since as a whole it is somewhat redundant. Thusly:

His silver blue mist floated in the air above him.That was not a good sign. I checked the history on my screen.  He had been here for over a year and he was scheduled for death in two days. I glanced at the mist again and shook my head.  I couldn’t wait that long.  Sometimes the mist still clung to them, but as the hour approached, it tugged and pulled, begging for release.    When it was completely detached, however,  it was time.  This man’s mist was already free. He was ready to die.

Sixth and seventh paragraphs:

Anon, I think that you should save the introduction and mention of the handler for later in your story. Let’s try to keep things in that room and between the patient and mercy killer until things play out. We’re accordingly going to remove the seventh paragraph altogether, as well as the last three sentences of the sixth paragraph.

— As for the sixth paragraph:

1)  “Let’s change “A hand strayed…” to “THE PATIENT’S hand strayed…”

2) “were the cord” should be “WHERE the cord.”

 

Last…I would like to rearrange your paragraph order, Anon, so that the story goes from observations of the patient to the room and then concentrates on the mist. This involves keeping the first paragraph where it is, and moving your second paragraph (now combined with the fifth) so that it follows the description of the room. It’s going to look like this:

I checked the picture on the screen of my cell phone one last time.  Errors are not acceptable in my profession.  The blue light of my phone spilled out into the darkened hospital room that smelled of antiseptic and decaying flesh.  I glanced up at the old man in the bed. An overhead lamp lit his face. He was the one. His chest quivered as he drew in a ragged breath. I wondered how many he would take before the end.

I glanced at a photograph on the stand that showed a young man in a suit holding a newborn baby with a pink face.  Beside it stood a vase with a blood-red rose. Propped against the vase sat a card that lay open. I stepped close to read the words scrawled in an impeccable hand.  “To my dearest love.” Crayon pictures of what looked like animals and grass and trees had been taped to the wall.  A photograph of a sailing ship with its sails billowing out before the wind clung to the wall over his bed.  This man had lived in this room for a long time.

His silver blue mist floated in the air above him.That was not a good sign. I checked the history on my screen.  He had been here for over a year and he was scheduled for death in two days. I glanced at the mist again and shook my head.  I couldn’t wait that long.  Sometimes the mist still clung to them, but as the hour approached, it tugged and pulled, begging for release.    When it was completely detached, however, it was time.  This man’s mist was already free. He was ready to die.

The man grimaced and opened his eyes. His hand strayed to his stomach where a cord poked out from under the sheets. I had seen pain before–many times. But I never got used to it. Seeing another human being in pain always sent a stab of sorrow to my heart.  

I’m done. TKZers…please have at it. I will stay uncharacteristically quiet for the most part during your comments. And Anon…thank you for providing us with your first page. Your story feels as if it will raise an important issue which is still being played out. I hope that you get to the end and that we’ll have the benefit of reading it.

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Knowing the Year

(c) Dan Povenmire and Jeff Marsh. All rights reserved to the creators.

Here is a short bit of morbidity for you. I had a very short dream several nights ago. I was standing in front of a pedestal-type entryway table with a faux leather top. There was a piece of paper on top of it. It was a death certificate. The death certificate was mine. I focused on my name — “Joseph V. Hartlaub” — and the date of death. All that I was able to read was the year: 2030. I then woke up.

I mentioned the dream to my wife the following morning. She said, “Well, you have thirteen years to prove the dream wrong.” My response was, “True. But that could work either way.”

The dream has been weighing heavily on my mind since that time. I’ve sharpened up my bucket list, stepped up my writing game, and considered asking David Levien to fix me up with Maggie Siff (I’m just kidding about that last one. Heh. Heh.). I’m thinking all along, however, that I could accept knowing to a reasonable degree of certainty at this point that I have thirteen more years to hang around. As I sit here right now I’m sixty-five, in good health, have twenty-six years of sobriety, and possess all of my mental faculties. I hope that’s true in thirteen years. It probably won’t be. It might be time to go.

I’m wondering, however, if EVERYONE has dreams like this and doesn’t talk about it. Have you ever had a dream like this, which gave you a date certain for your departure from this side of the veil? Do you want to know? And if you had a dream like this, and took it seriously, what would you want to accomplish in the interim with regard to your life, your relationships, and yes, your writing?

 

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What We Can Learn From Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry left us a week ago at the age of 90. He didn’t begin his music career intending to be a rock ‘n’ roll…star? Icon? Immortal? No. Berry wanted to be a blues singer initially, and that genre would sneak onto his albums here and there (including, I understand, Chuck, an album of new material to be released in June). Rock ‘n’ roll, however, was what paid the bills, and that’s what he did, arguably better than anyone else before or since.

Berry’s lyrics were amazing. He could put years and years of story into a three minute song, with three verses, chorus, and guitar solo. Badda bing bang boom. Go to Spotify (or better yet, your own music collection) and listen to what might be his most widely heard song (if not his most famous one), “You Never Can Tell,” which was prominently featured in the film Pulp Fiction. It’s about a teenage girl and boy who get married — probably too early — but with some hard work acquire an apartment with a “coolerator” full of tv dinners and ginger ale (described in a throwaway line that might be the best single pop song lyric ever written), a stereo with all sorts of 45s, and a flash car. They make a go of it against all odds, and Berry tells you everything you need to know about the whole shootin’ match in two minutes and forty-five seconds through a tune driven by Johnnie Johnson’s piano in the background. A somewhat tragic side note to the song is that Berry wrote the song while in prison. Berry also wrote and recorded his autobiography in three songs that you can listen to in just over seven minutes: “Johnny B. Goode,” the lesser known and bittersweet “Bye Bye Johnny” (which tells the story of his acquired stardom and fledgling motion picture career through the eyes of his mother, who drew out all her money from the bank to buy her son a guitar and put him on that Greyhound bus), and “Promised Land,” the mortar between the bricks of the two other songs. I don’t hang around bus stations (…) but I challenge you to go to one in any city and not hear “Promised Land” playing in your head.

What we can learn from this? Keep in mind that Berry’s art had baked-in limitations. For one, songs had to be relatively short if the artist and record label expected to get them played on the radio. For another, the lyrics had to rhyme. A third was that the clock was ticking. You had to keep putting product out back then to keep your place in radio rotation because some young, hungry upstart was breathing down your neck, hoping to take your place. Berry just painted a picture and kept it simple, particularly in songs like “Carol,” where the singer begs the object of his affection not to go off with someone else, and assures her that he’ll learn to dance if he has to practice all night and day. Berry communicates need and desire in two lines. You and I can do this too. If you have an idea for a story or novel, try to write it from beginning to end in one page (single spaced, 12 font size), from beginning to end. Don’t include every character, car crash, or explosion that you conceptualize. Describe each of your main characters in a medium length sentence, set forth what they are chasing, or after, or trying to achieve — the MacGuffin of the work — and what they are going to do to reach their goal. When you wrap up, provide the ending in terms of emotion or result: happy, sad, death, life, win, lose, or draw. There’s your first step, your blueprint, your demo, what they refer to in Nashville as a “guitar/vocal.” You’re not going to be showing this to anyone so if you feel the need to drift off a bit go ahead and have at it but you’ll at least have something down. Think of Chuck Berry while you do it, and remember that all of those great tunes he recorded were the end result of hours and hours or writing, rehearsal and recording, some of it very frustrating. I’m hoping that at some point a boxed set of alternate takes of Berry’s best known songs is released so that we can get a look at some of the entire process. You’re starting in reverse of what Berry did — you’re going to take something short and make it longer — but the principle of keeping it simple is the same for both.

My questions for you: if you have a favorite Chuck Berry song, what is it? Mine is the live version of “Johnny B. Goode” found on The London Chuck Berry Sessions. Berry starts off playing a ferocious version of “Bye Bye Johnny,” savagely spitting the first verse out, but the crowd, either because of their unfamiliarity with the song or confused by its similarity to “Johnny B. Goode,” starts singing the chorus to “Johnny B. Goode” in unison, startling Berry (“Look at ‘em! Look at ‘em! Sing! Sing, children!”) and causing him to switch to the lyrics of “Johnny B. Goode” for the second verse. Listen all the way to the end, when the M.C. pleads with the crowd to vacate the hall because they’re over time and — Oh, The Humanity! — Pink Floyd fans are waiting outside. Meanwhile, the crowd chants “WE WANT CHUCK! WE WANT CHUCK!”

If you don’t have a favorite Chuck Berry song, what is your favorite song otherwise?

 

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First Page Critique: REB’S REVENGE, Chapter 1

Let us welcome Anon du jour, who has bravely submitted the first page of Reb’s Revenge to TKZ’s First Page Critique. Without further ado, let us proceed:

Reb’s Revenge

CHAPTER ONE

Farnook Province

Afghanistan

February 14, 2009

The early morning sky was overcast and there was a chill in the air as the school bus traveled down the rural dirt road that connected the village of Kwajha to the nearby town of Bagshir. The bus was carrying sixteen young Afghani girls from the village of Kwajha to the local school for girls in Bagshir. Recent threats by the Taliban had the bus driver on edge.

Farzana, a young Afghani woman who taught at the girl’s school, was driving the bus. Martha Rawlings, a young American woman who also taught at the school, was leading the children, ages eight to fourteen, in the song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” The children were taking great delight in singing the song at the top of their voices.

When the Taliban had controlled Afghanistan, they outlawed the education of all girls. Since girls would no longer receive formal educations, there was no need for schools for girls and the Taliban destroyed the girl’s school that had been in the town of Bagshir.

After the Americans defeated Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and drove the Taliban underground, the girl’s school in Bagshir was rebuilt. At the Afghanistan government’s urging, families from the surrounding area started sending their daughters back to school again.

Then the Americans elected a new President who promptly announced that he was going to start withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. He went so far as to tell the world the dates by which he planned to pull the American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Taliban leaders—who had gone underground and were fighting an insurgency in Afghanistan—were overjoyed when they heard the news about the new American President’s military plans for Afghanistan. They knew that, if they bided their time, the Taliban would once again rule Afghanistan.

The school bus rounded a curve and the driver saw that there were two Toyota pickup trucks up ahead blocking the road. Several Afghan men armed with AK-47s were standing in the road signaling for the driver to stop.

As soon as the bus driver realized that the men were Taliban, she slammed on the brakes causing the bus to swerve out of control. The children stopped their singing and started screaming in fear. When the driver turned the steering wheel to try to get out of the swerve, she over-corrected and the bus flipped over onto the driver’s side and slid to a stop not thirty feet from the Taliban roadblock.

Hmm. Okay. Anon, you set up an interesting situation here. The execution of it is not without flaws, but it has possibilities.

Let’s start with a generality. Your narrative point of view ping pongs into and out of that bus several times within the first page.  Let’s keep it in the bus. You actually start to create an interesting mood here before things go slipping away faster than that poor bus and all of its passengers do. Let’s let Farzana drive the narrative and the bus for those first few opening paragraphs. I would hazard a guess that all of us know at least one teacher, so she’s going to be a sympathetic and a somewhat identifiable character. She is also right in the thick of things.  Let’s just focus on the inside of the bus for right now and the terrible danger these teachers and students are in.  I’m not suggesting that you eliminate the political backstory, but put that in later, at the beginning of your next chapter. Instead, let your third person narrative unfold from Farzana’s perspective as to the terrible danger those teachers and students are encountering as follows:

The early morning sky was overcast and there was a chill in the air as Farzana drove the school bus down the rural dirt road connecting the village of Kwajha with the town of Bagshir. She had grown up in this area and knew the twists and turns of the road, but she was still on edge. The Taliban had recently issued threats, and when they threatened, actions always followed.

Farzana noticed that the sixteen girls on the bus didn’t seem to be aware of the danger they were in. Martha Rawlings, the young American woman who had recently joined the school faculty, was leading them in a rousing version of “Old McDonald Had A Farm.” All of the girls, ranging in age from eight to fourteen, seemed to be having a good time, their exuberance for singing making up for what they might have lacked in ability.

Farzana looked at them for just a second in the bus’s rear view mirror. When she brought her attention back to the road…

..and so on and so forth.  Anon, I’d like you to watch the movie Dirty Harry, particularly the last twenty minutes or so where Scorpio hijacks a bus load of school kids and begins leading them in song. The kids at first seem to enjoy the diversion from the usual slog home, but they gradually get the feeling that all is not well. That’s what you want to do. Show that fear radiating off of Farzana, first as she exhibits her own worries as to what is ahead on the road, then how she feels as her worst fears are realized, then further as her inattention/nervousness whatever causes her to lose control of the bus and how she feels as she hears the sounds of the children screaming as the bus tips over and books go flying. Keep that going with whatever happens next, whether the girls are all herded off the bus and massacred — or worse — or a John Rambo type shows up and saves the day.

Also, Anon…you mention Kwajha and Bagshir twice in the first paragraph, and Bagshir as the locale of the school a few more times over the course of the first page. Once for each is sufficient to inform your reader of where the road goes and where the school is located. And once you give the bus driver a name — Farzana — you have personalized her, which is a good thing. Call her “Farzana” thereafter, rather than “the bus driver.”

Anon, you get research points for noting the Taliban’s love of Toyotas (I’d love to see a television commercial where a group of them sing, with rifles raised in the air, “Oh oh oh oh what a feeling! Toyota!” just before a 990 AeroVironment Wasp III vaporizes them all) (but I digress). And while your first page needs some work, what you submitted really makes me wonder what happens next in the world of Reb’s Revenge. One more thing…your first page made me realize that, if I get impatient when I get stuck on the highway behind a school bus, I’m being a jerk. It’s actually a privilege for me to have a school bus in front of me, taking kids to school, without having to worry about a vignette like you describe here. Thank you.

Readers and visitors…it’s your turn to comment. I will remain more or less uncharacteristically silent as you weigh in. Thank you in advance for stopping by and contributing.

 

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Not Gone. Just Hiding.

This is for all of our friends out there who 1) use Google Drive/Google Docs and 2) don’t know much more about it than how to open a new document, write on it, and close it out. I use Google Drive for everything creative and that which wishes it was. It’s not perfect — they need to work a bit harder on that spell check feature — but it is very good at many other things, such as locating that document that you created three years and two computers ago and immediately forgot about but that you need right now. Oh. And updating. Google Drive is  really good at automatically updating your document as you move right along. That brings us to today’s helpful hint.

I recently spent several days using Google Drive while working on a legal analysis. I was putting the finishing touches on my document, which I had creatively named “Analysis for (insert client’s name here)”  when I received a long anticipated email with information which I needed for the very project on which I was working. The email also needed an immediate response from me.  Since my response was a bit involved I opened a new Google document, drafted the response, and copied and pasted it to my responding email. I returned to my blog draft in “Analysis for (insert client’s name here)” opened it, and accidentally made a click here and a click there. The several pages or so of analysis which I had painstakingly written during the previous week or so were replaced in the “Analysis for (insert client’s name here)” document by the email response which I had just written. Gone. Vanished. I clicked on the “Edit” menu and the clicked “Undo” and nothing happened. I thought that my work had possibly been moved a few pages down by my accidentally pasting my email into the document. No. That’s not what happened. I still don’t know what happened. All of my work on that analysis was gone, however. Or so I thought.

I at that point yelled “Oh shoot” (or something like that) which did very little good, other than for scaring the cat away which is never a bad thing It just wasn’t helpful. I got up, got a cup of coffee, and went through the motions of deciding whether to try to begin the analysis all over or to binge watch True Detective: Season One for the twenty-secondth time. I took a sip of coffee and thought about things, like dead pets and old girlfriends, and my brain sideloaded an idea. I went back to my computer, googled a question, and immediately received the answer I wanted, which I will now share with you.

The question which I inartfully asked was: “Can I access revisions of a document drafted in Google Drive?” The answer was a resounding “Yes!” It is easy to do. Just open the file that you have messed up and click on the pull down “File” menu. You will find an option for “See revision history”at a point about halfway down the menu  A list with the heading “Revision history” will pop up on the right side of your screen. Just go on down the list to find the revision you want. I did that. I couldn’t find the version of my document that I was looking for. I went all the way to the bottom of the list and found a  link with the title “Show more detailed revisions.” Just run through the list until you find the revised version of the document that you want.

This is a terrific feature, particularly if you’re working on a document that is getting passed back and forth among folks. It enables you to access who made what changes, and when. It settles arguments regarding which attorney used the sloppy language in the divorce agreement, or who forgot about The Lord Mansfield Rule when making provisions in the will for that red-headed stepchild.  I have also heard that teachers are having great fun with this feature. Many if not most schools are utilizing online homework submission (among other things) thanks to Google, which is providing students with their own school email and Google Drive accounts which they can utilize to complete tasks and email to their teachers. The student accounts are in the school mainframe and can be accessed by the teacher.  Mrs. Krabappel can accordingly check to see if Bart Simpson has been working on his class paper all week or simply dashed off a few sentences the morning it was due.

There is a lot more that you can with this feature. you can find a good overview of it with an understandable explanation here. Play with it if you like (try opening a new document and typing just a few sentences, just in case it’s not working when you try it, heh heh). Meanwhile…does anyone have any cautionary tales which they would like to share about accidentally erasing a creative endeavor, including what they did about it after the fact?

 

 

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First Page Critique: DEATH BY PROXY

Good day to you all, and join me in welcoming today’s Anon, who graciously submitted the first page of their work in progress, DEATH BY PROXY, for critical reaction:

If a lawyer saves you from prison and gives you a job, you’ll do anything he asks.

               Which is why Tawny Lindholm was driving at a crawl through a January Montana blizzard, trying to find house numbers on condominium buildings. Whoever laid out Golden Eagle Meadows Golf Resort didn’t have much sympathy for pizza deliveries or a nosy middle-aged woman trying to find the unit where her boss’s father lived. A good six inches of fresh snow layered the street, with more heaped up on the curbs. She parked the Jeep Wrangler and crunched through white banks. Her booted feet shuffle-scuffed on what she hoped was the slippery walkway to the right condo.

               Icy bullets stung her cheeks and nose, penetrating the wool scarf. With a gloved hand, she thumped on the door. Waited. At nine-thirty in the morning, he should be awake. Thumped again. Waited.

At last, the door swung open. Inside stood a preview of what her boss Tillman Rosenbaum would look like in thirty years. Stoop-shouldered, but still way over six feet tall, lanky build, iron gray curls, snapping black eyes, jutting lower jaw, and a suspicious snarl for a greeting. “What?”

               Tawny smiled with as much warmth as she could manage at ten degrees. “Mr. Rosenbaum, my name is Tawny Lindholm. I wonder if I could have a few minutes of your time.”

               “You’re too old to be selling Girl Scout cookies.” The door started to close.

               “I’m not selling anything, sir. I work for your son and he asked me to—“

               “I have no son!” the bass voice roared.

               Tawny forced her smile wider. “Sir, if I could just talk to you for a few minutes.” Her teeth chattered. “I promise I won’t take up much time.”

               The old man glared down at her.

     Tawny had already felt that same rage from the son and learned to stand up to him. Would that work with the father? She met his dark angry eyes with a steady gaze. “Mr. Rosenbaum, your son is my boss and I know as well as you do that he’s a big pain in the ass. If I don’t do what he’s told me to do, he’ll fire me and, sir, I really need this job.”

The first page of Death by Proxy is actually very well done.  Anon, you have a future as a writer, but let’s fix that formatting. Let’s indent the first sentence of each of your paragraphs by five spaces, rather than what you have, and while we are at it double space each line. Also, old guys like John Gilstrap appreciate it when you increase your font size to 12, as I have done above. It makes your efforts easier to read, as opposed to the 9.5 you used originally.

That done, let’s take an overview of what we have. The substance is good. It’s very good, actually.  A lesser writer would have started by describing Tawny Lindholm as a middle-aged woman employed by an attorney who was walking up a driveway in the middle of a snowstorm. Anon tells us all of this in due course, but gradually. Anon starts with an intriguing sentence that raises a question for later — what sort of trouble was/is our protagonist in? — thus baiting the hook that tugs the reader into the story. The mood is very well set, indeed, with the description of the weather. Did Anon grow up in the Midwest? Death by Proxy sure reads like it. I love that “shuffle-scuffed” term. I had never encountered the term before, but I certainly know what it is. We here in flyover country learn at an early age how to “shuffle scuff” on an icy sidewalk or we develop callused posteriors. Anon also does a terrific job of hinting at the conflict between the father and the son. It reminds me of a joke about two guys on a camel and…anyway, it’s well done. I was honestly very disappointed when the page ended.

As good as the substance is, the form needs a little first aid. Fortunately, we’re looking at bandages instead of casts or sutures. I will note, Anon, that it appears you took the time to proofread. I couldn’t find any typos. There’s another good job well done.

Now let’s put the bandages, with a little Neosporin, on the abrasions. One element that sticks out, Anon, is that you seem to like using incomplete and fragmented sentences. You absolutely can and may use them;  they do have a place. Don’t overdo it, however. You’ve got several in your first page. If the rest of your manuscript is similar then I would recommend going through your story and changing four of every five fragments to complete sentences. Using too many of them interrupts the flow of your narration.

Here we go:

Paragraph Two:

— “Which is why Tawny Lindholm was…”

hmmm. “That was why…” would be better. You can and may use a conjunction to start a sentence, but it’s awkward here. You also want the tenses to match, rather than jumping from present to past tense within the space of a few words.

— “…sympathy for pizza deliveries or nosy middle-aged woman…”

For consistency’s sake — what Jim Bell and others who actually know how to teach this stuff would call “sentence parallelism” — you want to use “pizza deliverers” or “pizza delivery people” with “middle aged woman,” thus having “people,” if you will, on either side of that “or,” instead of an action — “deliveries” — on one side and a person on the other.

Paragraph Three:

— “ Icy bullets stung her cheeks and nose, penetrating the wool scarf.”

I love the elements of the sentence, but not the order of the clauses.  Those icy bullets — good description, Anon — penetrate the scarf — her scarf — first, and then sting her cheek and nose. Tell what happens in the order it occurs. “Icy bullets penetrated her wool scarf and stung her cheeks and nose.” (or “…stinging her cheeks and nose.”) Let’s also change the order of the clauses in the next sentence,

—“With a gloved hand, she thumped on the door.”

I’m a sick puppy, so I visualized Tawny holding a severed, gloved hand, bleeding profusely from the wrist, and using it to knock on the door. Switch the clauses and make it personal. “She thumped on the door with her gloved hand.” Or, better yet, “She knocked on the door, her gloved hand almost numb from the bitter cold.”

— “Thumped again. Waited.”

Try transforming these two incomplete sentences into one complete one:  “She thumped (or knocked) again and waited.”

Paragraph Four:

— “…in thirty years. Stoop-shouldered, but…”

Let’s use a colon to make the sentence fragment beginning with “Stooped shouldered” a part of the preceding sentence (I really like the set up, by the way, as it tells us not only what the father looks like but gives us an idea about the son, as well). How about “…thirty years: stoop-shouldered, but…”

Paragraph Five:

— “Tawny had already felt that same rage from the son and learned to stand up to him. Would that work with the father?”

Let’s call the “son” by his name — Tillman — once in while, or by his familiar title, “her boss.” Let’s also break the first sentence up a bit and then change the second sentence slightly to reflect that change, as follows: “Tawny had already felt that same rage from her boss. She had learned to stand up to it, and to him. Would it work with his father?”

Anon, this may seem like a whole slew of corrections, but please don’t be discouraged. Go back to what I said about being disappointed when the first page ended. Please keep going…and thank you for sending your submission to TKZ’s First Page Critique!

I will step aside at this point (for the most part). Are there any comments or questions from our friends out there?

 

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Getting Your Homework Done

I have a friend who, even as he has achieved septuagenarian status, remains the master of the bon mot. We were talking about the finality of life and about people of our age group — primarily women we had, um, known in the past — who had already gone ahead. The conversation turned to health, and how fragile it gets as that unknown sell-by date approaches. He capped off the conversation by saying, “Gee! I better hurry up and get my homework done!”

Indeed. It seems as if we are stuck in a Lewis Carroll novel, where we must run faster to stay in place. And what happened with that technological helping hand? Technology was supposed to help us get more accomplished; instead it seems to have inadvertently created more tasks, providing us with a longer reach which is ill-suited  to work with our increasingly arthritic grasp. This doesn’t just apply to those of us who are old enough to remember when television consisted of three channels, either. My ten year granddaughter was recently assigned to write a one-paragraph essay as a homework assignment. She turned in an extremely sub-standard effort — one at odds with her stratospheric IQ — which ended with the sentence: “I wrote this in the car on the way to school.” She earned a grade of “SEE ME” from the teacher. It developed that our darling had gotten caught up in a roleplaying game the night before, which was more interesting than a writing a paragraph could ever be, and then gave it her all, if you will, on the way to school the following morning.

Writers are faced with this time balance on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Life gets in the way of writing. Heck, life gets in the way of life. My way of dealing with this has never been perfect and is constantly evolving. I am accordingly going to share with you my current method for coping with the time crunch, which, as I approach the downhill slope of my life, actually works pretty well.

1)  Eat the booger first. That got your attention, didn’t it? The “booger” in this case is the task you want to do least. It can be anything from emptying the dishwasher to drafting that letter that contains bad news for the recipient. Do that first. Do it as soon as you get the bad news that you have been appointed to pass on. Do it when the dishwasher light goes on, or it buzzes, or whatever. I have found in most cases that the freakin’ idea of whatever it is you need to do but don’t want to is often worse than actually doing it.

Here is but one example. I’ve been fighting the clutter monster, which for me  consists of paper, paper, paper. I had reached the point where a home shredder wasn’t getting the job done. Lo and behold, I discovered that some UPS Store outlets have contracted with the Iron Mountain folks to shred paper at a reasonable price. Problem solved. I started with the goal of going through one box a week to determine what I need (a closed file concerning a client that I still represent on other matters) to what I don’t (a receipt for a garage door repair done in…well, not this century). I am now enjoying it so much that I have to put a limit on the number of boxes I go through in a day, because I wasn’t getting other things done.

2) List your Big Four. List four things which you try to do every day, regardless of what else happens. Put them in your calendar (on daily repeat) at the beginning of your day. Assign one word to each task — Watch, Read, Write, and Listen, for example — and do each of those things for fifteen minutes each day. If you want to keep doing them, fine, but the first time that you start each one  be sure to stop after fifteen minutes. Come back to each one later, if you wish and if you can, but again, in fifteen minute increments. Do it with tasks that you want or have to do regularly, and love or hate (or somewhere in between) , but do each for fifteen minutes at a time. You will be surprised at how long and how short a quarter-hour is, and how much you can get done in that time period. This is particularly true of writing. Depending on your typing speed, inspiration, and perspiration, you can get a couple of hundred words out of you and on the screen in fifteen minutes. What? You say that doesn’t sound like much? Count out two hundred Skittles and throw them around the living room. Now pick them up. See. Two hundred is a lot. Do that for ten days and you have two thousand words or more, where before you had nothing. And so it goes.

3) Schedule things realistically, and adjust your expectations accordingly. It isn’t going to take you fifteen minutes to prepare your income tax return, so don’t schedule that from 10:00 to 10:15 on the night of April 14. You’ll just be making an appointment to be kissed by the goddess of disappointment. Go ahead and block off fifteen minutes for it, across twenty different days, or block off an entire day, if you can do it. You have a pretty good idea how long it takes you, however, from past experience, which is usually a pretty good indicator of present performance. But be realistic in your estimates of how long it takes you and how long you can work on it at a stretch. Think of YOUR abilities and limitations.  Mickey Spillane wrote I the Jury in nineteen days, and Georges Simenon could write a book in less time than that, but you or I aren’t going to do that (probably). Don’t get discouraged when it takes longer than you thought it would, and plan accordingly.

4) Stay the fu-heck off of the phone. And if you can’t, learn how to cut calls short. I am running over my scheduled time for writing this blog because my brother called me and I took the call, which he made to tell me a hysterically funny joke. One thing led to another and all of a sudden I found myself behind the eightball. Some calls you have to take, particularly if you have children who need you for whatever reason.  I’m currently helping a guy who is struggling with the first steps of sobriety. He calls. I’m there. Period. End of story, and to heck with the schedule. When dealing with most other folks, however, I tell them upfront that I am busy and can either 1) give them five minutes before I have to leave or 2) call them back the next day. Make it stick. Be polite, and most people understand.

The great part of all of this is that it doesn’t take two hours out of each day to set up. I’ve worked with systems that used cards, diaries, etc.  This doesn’t. You can make it up and set it up fairly quickly. In the case of my granddaughter, she could have eaten the booger first by writing the essay as soon as she got home, then played her computer game for fifteen minutes, done her other homework, then gone back to the games. She’ll learn, hopefully, though it took me long enough to do so. And I didn’t think this up by myself. I got the fifteen minute thing from a woman who calls herself “The Flylady” and the suggestion to “eat the booger first” from a friend in Louisiana. So use what you like and what works for you. Which brings us to the end of me and the beginning of you: what methods have you used and acquired to stay productive?

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The Legos Theory of Storytelling as Applied to Turkish Television. Seriously.

Happy 2017! I spent the holidays reading almost nothing, writing a lot, and engaging for better or worse in self-reflection.  I concluded that the best thing I could do for myself and for my work was to go back to basics.

What follows is aimed more at those folks in our audience who are struggling with getting that first novel done. It is easy enough to explain in the context of childhood: rather than struggling to build a motorized crane using an Eitech Erector Set, I need to grab a box of Legos and start building little cars and and people and such, working my way forward by starting with the small and simple and building gradually, but steadily.

I came to this conclusion after watching two television series. You’ve almost certainly heard of one, and probably have never heard of the other. Our own Kathryn Lilley discussed Westworld on this blog a few weeks back. It was beautifully filmed, intricately plotted, startling, and full of surprises. The major rub against it was that it was difficult to understand what was going on from episode to episode. I still have a little callus on my thumb from rewinding it to pick up certain plot nuances that I missed. There were several — maybe a dozen — plot lines that spun off in different directions, some of which were relevant to the story, others which seemed to have been included simply to create a mood. All of them were interesting, but only a few minutes were devoted to each at any one time. Characters? More characters had been introduced by Episode Three than I could keep track of. I found it to be worth working through it — it raises some stunning and yes, frightening issues concerning reality, mortality, and other areas — but the general consensus seems to be that it arguably is a series that more people heard about than actually watched.

The anti-Westworld, if you will, is a series available on Netflix called Kacak (“The Fugitive”). If Westworld  is the result of the Eitech erector set I referenced at the beginning of this post, Kacak comes from the basic box of Legos, and it is wonderful. Kacak is a genre-blurring television series produced in Turkey, throwing together elements of thriller, suspense, romance, drama, and yes, a bit of comedy to create a slow-boil story that sucks you in and doesn’t let you go. It is subtitled, but the story is simple enough, and the acting is good enough, that one could glean the context without it. It begins in a remote Turkish village where a man named Serhat operates a tea shop. He is loved by everyone around him, and one gets the sense of “why” from his interaction with his clientele and another shopkeeper. For his own part, Serhat is devoted to his wife and their young son, who somehow in a few moments becomes the cutest little guy to ever walk the face of the earth. All of this communicated with a few minutes of interaction here and there over the course of a day or so. Just when you think you’ve stumbled into an episode of Lassie, however, Serhat interjects himself quite forcefully into a dangerous situation. He is immediately hailed as a hero throughout his village; when news of Serhat’s heroism spreads to Istanbul, however, a danger from his past — a past of which even his beloved wife knows nothing — quickly intrudes and irrevocably blows up Serhat’s perfect life. Does this sound familiar? Sure. The movie A History of Violence explores a similar theme, as does Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Kacak goes further, however. Serhat vows revenge. As Serhat carries out his plan — and attempts to put what is left of life back together — the audience learns about his past, in dribs and drabs, not in meal courses but in tapas or dim sum, small portions which are easily digestible and brought out over the course of the very long meal, where the surprises keep coming. To put it another way: just when you think you’ve reached the smallest Russian nesting doll, there’s another one within.

Kacak does all of this without a big budget, or, interestingly enough, without nudity, graphic sex, or (much) gratuitous violence. Some of the acting is a bit stilted, and there are momentary but noticeable lapses of continuity, to the extent that on occasion the series is unintentionally funny. That is part of the charm of it, however. It isn’t subtle or nuanced for the most part. What it does, however, and does very well, is tell a story.

I will be the first to acknowledge that I am not much of a teacher. If I have a strength in the area of education it’s the ability to point people to something that will illustrate, quickly, how something is done. If you are having trouble getting your story off of the ground, or that you are getting bogged down under the weight of your own plot, or are having trouble keeping your characters straight, hijack the family Netflix account from your teenager and watch at least the first few episodes of Kacak. I have watched the first ten — Netflix lists fifty — but you can learn a lot just by watching and studying the first three or four. I think, however, that you will want to eventually watch the whole series, which takes that little box of Legos and slowly builds from it, using just a few parts at a time.

My question for you: is there a television series you use to jumpstart your writing, to clear the cobwebs, whatever? My own answer: in addition to Kacak…True Detective: Season One, which I have practically committed to memory (time, indeed, is a flat circle). You?

 

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Ring out the Old…

kelvinator

Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits…and sometimes I write. I am doing the latter while waiting for Kelvin, our venerable refrigerator, to be hauled away. Kelvin lasted a long time, taking the blame for disappearing food (“Who ate the last pork chop?” “Kelvinator!”) for two decades and change. It is the last original major appliance in the Hartlaub House of Hoo-Ha to give up the ghost. I bought it and this house twenty-two years ago — July 1, 1994 — when I was a single dad with three children. Four days after I moved myself and my brood into this residence and started making it a home a company named “Amazon” started in Seattle, Washington, with the goal of being the world’s largest bookstore. The new refrigerator wasn’t purchased from Amazon, but it could have been.

I won’t try to list all or even a few of the things that have happened in the world since Kelvin was pressed into service. I’ll tell you a few of the things that have happened to me. They were all surprises. I remarried. I had a fourth child. I’ve had stories published, had a supporting role in a feature film (which you all may yet see in 2017), changed my field of law practice, written some book reviews for bookreporter.com (which didn’t exist in 1994 either), and acquired a whole bunch of new friends (and yes, maybe a couple of enemies too!). Kelvin was a part of a bit of all of that, and it’s going to somewhat of a somber moment when the truck pulls up to haul it away, to be replaced by what more likely than not will be my last refrigerator, particularly if the new one lasts as long as the old one did.

“Somber” for me has usually been followed by “pensive.” It would be easy as the old year ends and a new one begins to reflexively list my New Year’s resolutions, and ask you to share yours as well. Instead, I’m going to ask you: what is it that you don’t want to do in 2017? Mine is easy to state, and hard to do, particularly because it soooo easy in my case to use age an excuse to do otherwise. I’m going to try however, to follow this rule: Don’t. Screw. Up. Now let’s see yours.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year! Be safe. We’ll see you on the other side of the New Year.

 

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FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE: (No Title) by Anonymous

annalisa-and-colman2

Photograph (c) 2015 by Annalisa Hartlaub. All rights reserved.

 

Anonymous, on behalf of all the of TKZ family  I bid you welcome and thank you for submitting to our FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE and thus braving the constructive slings and arrows which may or may not be coming your way!

“Lyssa, come back!” the large, dark haired man shouted.  The woman had lured him into a hedge maze, but he suspected that was only to provide him with a false sense of security.  If the woman had survived this long, had done the things he suspected she did, there was no chance that she wouldn’t know his particular abilities.  He sighed, exhaling slowly and closing his eyes, hearing the voices on the wind as the plants themselves bent to whisper of her actions to him.  She was waiting at the center.  He hesitated, almost turning to leave but deciding that if he could not defeat this hack on his own grounds then he was doomed to fall on hers.  He strode forward, determined and defiant, the plants parting for his footsteps until he reached the end of the maze.

Lyssa saw the dwarf boxes part, a grin crawling onto her face.  She was laying on her back, her head towards the man that currently pursued her and her arms spread out to her sides, tilting her chin up to look up towards the man.  “Did you like the maze mister?  I know how much you love plants.”  She saw him hesitate again, only grinning wider, stretching comfortably on the grass.  Reaching this moment overjoyed her, the peak of her efforts, the climax of this story.  The man was reluctant, but he too had fallen to the strings that bound all living beings, and in a moment he would be no more than a mere puppet, a toy for her to toss away as she became bored with him.  Toys were never any fun after they stopped working.

He had loved her like a daughter.  He still did, but he needed to know what she was.  He continued his strong stride towards her, her words like needles in his mind, laced with that all too familiar giggle.  He snapped his fingers, the hedges moving like vines to snap around her limbs and hold her on the grounds.  She squirmed a little, but her grin did not waver in the slightest.  Was she so confident he would not kill her?  It would take only a moment like this, another snap, but he dared not imagine what the brambles would do to her if he did.

Anon, this is an intriguing opening page with an interesting premise. I like the pacing and was actually disappointed that I only had one page to read. That’s a good sign, especially for someone like myself who doesn’t read fantasy literature on a regular basis. Let’s keep that in mind as I review a few deficiencies which I think are readily remediable:

Names — Give the male character  a name at or very near to the beginning And since you have named the female character “Lyssa,” use her name rather than “the woman” as general rule. Repetitive use of  “the woman” and “the man” tends to depersonalize both of them; when we’re reading we want to get them in focus a little more clearly and naming them will do that.  often than not. And let’s use the term “dwarf boxes” — a terrific name — repetitively instead of “plants,” at least for a couple of pages. Drop little hints, like breadcrumbs through the forest of your story, each one describing the dwarf boxes so that by the third page or so we know that they are plants without telling us. Show, don’t tell.

Perspective — Let’s keep the perspective with the man for the first page or two. It changes here after the first paragraph and it’s a bit of a sudden jump. Shifting perspectives so early in the story and so quickly is a bit jarring, and doing so from paragraph to paragraph is a bit much. I’m seeing a little more of the abrupt shifting, probably for the reason of creating suspense, in published books these days but it usually takes place (much) later in the story. I recommend getting your story rolling — and I mean really rolling, like several chapters — before you start doing that if you do it at all. It appears that you are trying to create what I call a “Bugs (Bunny) and Elmer (Fudd)” scenario, as in Elmer sticking his hand down the rabbit hole saying “Now I’ve got you!” to which Bugs responds, “On the contrary! I’ve got YOU!” You can do this solely from the man’s perspective. He sees her smile, hears her question about the maze, and senses her confidence but is in turn confident in his own powers over the dwarf boxes to control the situation.

Literary elements — Some of the similes, metaphors and turns of phrase in the second and third paragraphs read as if you’re trying just a little too hard. You get an ‘A’ for effort, but sometimes the phrasing is a bit awkward. “Grin crawling on her face…” Ugh. I pictured a spider or something crawling out of the grass. Try something like “The corners of her mouth slowly turned upward.” Then there is“The moment overjoyed her, the peak of her efforts, the climax of this story.”  I’m not sure what that means. The story has barely started and you’re talking about the climax. “The words like needles in his mind…” again, it’s a simile that doesn’t quite work. It’s somewhat cringe-inducing.  I think it’s just a matter of overreaching, and while there are worse sins you could commit I recommend that you focus on telling the best story you can the first time through and then going back and judiciously embellishing your sentences. A great example of a metaphor of yours that works is in the final sentence of the second paragraph. It’s simple and we can all relate.

Relationships — I’m somewhat confused about the extent of the relationship between the two characters. The man knows Lyssa’s name, and indicates that he loves her like a daughter, while from her perspective he is “the man who currently pursued her.” Again, name the man, and you can clear up the confusion by having Lyssa either call him by name, addressing him as “Stranger,” or a bit of further dialogue that hints at their familiarity with one another.

Proofreading — Proofreading is always a must, and you did a good job here, Anon, for the most part. I spotted two mistakes in one sentence in the second paragraph.  “Did you like the maze mister” would read better as “Did you like the maze, Mister?” There are probably more, but possibly not. I need a second steady eye to review my work and recommend that you employ the same if you’re not doing so already.

Anon, all else aside, I like the conflict that you have set up by the end of the page: the two characters are confronting each other, the man seemingly having Lyssa at a lethal disadvantage for a reason that you have revealed, while Lyssa seems to have a yet-unrevealed advantage of her own. Again, I really wanted to see more of this tale when I reached the conclusion of your submission. Keep plugging away and let us know when your efforts are rewarded. And thank you again for submitting your work to our First Page Critique. With that, I shall step aside and let our readers make their comments!

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