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.

Comic Relief

Photo courtesy Natalia Y on unsplash.com

Happy New Year! I hope that your holiday was as good as mine. I learned something which may have some major repercussions for me going forward.

I am not sure how what follows originally came up for discussion. The source, however, was my twelve-year-old granddaughter. She talks quite a bit about some things and not at all about others, with the border between the two constantly shifting and changing. Sometimes it is hard for me to keep up, which is okay. It gives her the freedom to chatter away and me the impetus to keep trying to figure it out. So it is that during one day of her Christmas vacation she was at one moment talking about a manga character and the next was talking about something she called “comic sans.”  I assumed at first that she was referring to comic book character that she particularly revered. As she continued for a bit longer, however, I realized that she was referring to a type font.

We each and all have a favorite font. Actually, that’s wrong. We each and all have a font that we use by default. Mine, since Jesus was in short pants, has been the boring and predictable but nonetheless popular Times New Roman. Many prefer Arial. It’s not something we usually even think about, particularly when reading. A great number of books make a point of referencing, usually on a page at the back, the font in which the book is printed and providing a three or four sentence summary of its history. To wit:

This book was printed using the Beelzebub font designed by a group of renegade Tantric monks in the early 18th Century. It was once popular but fell out of favor due to the spread of a superstition that the Universe would end upon the setting of the one-billionth charact

I in any event never really paid much attention to the topic other than to occasionally check out the pull-down menu on whatever word processing software I am using and to marvel for a moment at all of the choices. I realize that my choice of Times New Roman is similar to walking into Baskin-Robbins, checking out the thirty-one flavors of the month, and choosing vanilla. Most editors and the like prefer Ariel or Times New Roman, however, so it’s a safe bet. Only…only…there seems to be a bit of discussion among the younger set regarding “Comic Sans MS.” or “Comic Sans” for short. It was originally developed as a typeface for comic book narration and word balloons in 1994. A short, light-hearted video about it with a sample can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34fOZgy4TqI One doesn’t use it for formal documents such as a will, a contract, or an all-important postgraduate thesis. But. But. The discussion taking place among the young ones concerns the use of Comic Sans as a creative tool. Proponents say that there is something about it that aides the creative process, one that seems to cause words to flow almost unbidden from brain to fingers and beyond. Opponents (my younger daughter, among them) say it doesn’t do any such thing and looks like crap besides.

 

Photo courtesy Raphael Schaller on unsplash.com

I checked Google Drive to see if I had Comic Sans as a choice and sure enough, there it was, theretofore unnoticed in the menu. It looked godawful though somehow familiar. The familiarity should not have been a surprise, given that it mimics the text that was popular in comic books, which I read by the boxfuls for decades. I opened up a new document and started writing with it. Two hours later I was still writing, stopping only after being entreated to make a pizza run. I was, as they say, in the zone. I found that for the first time in my life I actually preferred writing to reading. The words simply seem to flow, just like the kiddies say with Comic Sans than with Times New Roman or anything else I have used. God forbid that I would submit anything in Comic Sans unless it was specifically called for, but it is certainly easy enough to convert into another format for a submission or final copy.

Check it out, particularly if you are having problems, as we all sometimes do, with getting things going in the grammar mine. I can’t really explain why it works for me and apparently for others, but work it does. I find that writing with purpose is often a struggle — as with many things (but not all) it’s a lot more fun to want to do it than have to do it — but the line has been blurred. I’ve been writing and writing quite a bit, each and every day, since I have made the change. If you would, please check out the typeface — I’m having a PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) problem so I can’t duplicate Comic Sans here — and please tell us what you think.

Photo courtesy Ilnur Kalimullin on unsplash.com

I have to mention something else. I think it is terrific that young people, or at least a segment of them, even give a flying fig about a font, what helps them write, and what makes them better writers. My generation at that age really didn’t care or even think about fonts. We only thought about the print being large or small. We knew there was a difference in fonts among newspapers, books, comics, and instructions but we didn’t remark on it or give a flying fig. Younger folks do and they’re talking about it and other elements on their way to writing the best stories that they can. They are not just writing. They are reading, which is encouraging, or should be, for all of us.

 

6+

The Organ Recital

Photo courtesy of Sydney Rae, unsplash.com

Where did the year(s) go? Is there a way to slow things down, before one reaches the age of the organ recital? What is that, you ask?

A friend of mine who is a bit ahead of me agewise has a weekly meeting with an ever-dwindling group of his friends from high school. My pal recently referred to one of these gatherings as “the organ recital.” I asked him what he meant, and he said, “Y’know, this guy talks about his liver problems. That one is talking about starting renal dialysis in two weeks. We’re going to have to change our meeting day. I’ve had two heart attacks, and my pancreas won’t survive another Christmas of Reese’s Trees and Giant Eagle Egg Nog ice cream. The bags of all-season cheese curls probably don’t help either. We all try to one-up each other about how sick we are, whose organ will go first and which one it will be.”

I’ve noticed this practice among my own circle of friends of a certain age. Their daily routines seem to be intervals between trips to this specialist or that specialist. I don’t engage in this because I don’t go to the doctor. It’s not an act of denial. I know what’s coming.  I just don’t care to know which of my bodily parts might be planning a suicidal onslaught against me or if they’re going to collaborate on some sort of kamikaze run at an inopportune time, like when I’m attempting to navigate the silly-string pattern of I-65 through downtown Nashville, when they’ll say, “Let’s cut the strings on this puppet right NOW!”  Oh, sure, I wake up at 3 AM and wonder momentarily if that sudden, tear-inducing pain in my side is a tumor the size of Milwaukee, boldly shouldering aside everything in its ever-increasing path, or if that twinge of chest pain is a signal to the conductor that, thanks to regular patronage of Arby’s and Sonic, that left anterior descending artery is blocked up and the remaining available tracks can’t handle the freight. They all go away, however, and everything still seems to work okay, so I forget about them until the next minor complaint arises. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

Young folks don’t think about this, but they normally don’t have friends who have died suddenly in their sleep, or after a series of hospital stays, or while unable to recognize loved ones or even themselves as they spend their final days in an institution which has come to be known, ironically enough, as a memory facility. When you are in your thirties, such things seem miles away, over the river and through the woods, something that happens to others, to old people. They don’t realize how fast time passes. That distant toll of the bell all too soon becomes up close and personal.

2018 wasn’t been one of my better years, but there have been worse, much worse. The worst of them were the worst of them due by and large to self-inflicted damage and will hopefully never be repeated, thanks to acquired wisdom and accumulated guile. 2018 was sadly memorable for watching a number of folks I have loved to varying degrees lay down their swords and shields and pass ahead to the next stage. I am fortunate at the moment, however, to be more Harry than Tonto, more weekend than Bernie. There is still much for which to look forward. My children continue to surprise me in good and great ways, and my granddaughter promises much and delivers more. On the cultural side, there is a new James Lee Burke novel — The New Iberia Blues — and a new season of Luther coming. The new year also has the promise of some new horizons to see before any final sunset, if good fortune prevails. Hoping for the best while preparing for the worst seems to cover all of the bases. Until that moment when it doesn’t, of course.

While I have the chance let me tell you that I am so thankful for each and every one of you that I can’t adequately express it.  Thanks for stopping by, reading, commenting, and being a friend to everyone at TKZ. You are the reason why we show up. And please: keep writing, writing, and writing until the tip of that spear you call your story is as sharp as you can get it. That friend I mentioned at the beginning of this piece is fond of saying (in another context) that a used key stays shiny. Keep using your talents and shining them up until they are so bright that they cannot be ignored.

Thank you. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you in 2019.

6+

MISSING

Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger from unsplash.com

I sit this evening perplexed by mysteries, personal puzzles that really have no point in being discussed here. Pull one thread, however, and it catches another and then another, whether they be in the material or intangible world. So it is that I occasionally obsess for a few moments about a couple of local puzzles that are commemorated to varying degrees on the anniversaries of their occurrences.

The first of these occurred — or at least manifested itself — within walking distance of my home. I live two blocks away from Hoover Reservoir, a body of water consisting of five square miles which is by turns a water source, park, and recreation area. A gentleman named Rob Mohney also lived nearby until 1996. He abruptly disappeared one evening in July, leaving the door to his home unlocked and the supper on his table untouched, a still-life, landlocked model of the Mary Celeste. He was still missing when his car was noticed at the reservoir a few days later. One of the initial theories of explanation regarding his disappearance was that he had parked at the reservoir, then walked to the pedestrian crossing over the dam, where he had done a Peter Pan for whatever sad reason into the waters crashing beneath. We are not talking Niagara Falls, however, and the waters in question quickly give up their own when there is anything to give. Mr. Mohney was never found.

Local law enforcement still pursues the case. A tip led them to a nearby rural plot of land where a backhoe failed to give up any secrets. Mohney still lives, however, in the local lore. A year after his disappearance a group of drunken seniors from one of the local high schools reported seeing his shade wandering late at night on the far banks of the reservoir, and sightings are still reported by their successors some twenty years and change later.

Thousands of people are reported missing each year. Most are found in one condition or another, either reunited with loved ones or bound over to the state of deep and seemingly unending mourning, depending upon circumstance. The truth, however, is that some people just…disappear. There is no law against it if the person missing is an adult and the absence appears voluntarily. While the occurrence often raises suspicion of what is known as “foul play,” it isn’t always. Some people tire of their lives and decide to up sticks and reinvent themselves elsewhere. Stories abound of how the quick-witted and -footed took advantage of the 9/11 terror attack in New York and left a hated job or a tired relationship behind to go on permanent vacation in the Mohave.

It is hard to classify the second and better known mysterious absence which has occurred in my area. Theories about the perplexing disappearance of Brian Shaffer abound. Shaffer, a 27-year-old medical student at the Ohio State University in Columbus, seemed after a deep personal tragedy to have the world by the tail with a downhill pull. On Saturday, April 1, 2006, as he and two friends began a bar crawl through the North High Street campus area. Shaffer needed the break. His mother had died a few weeks earlier following a long battle with cancer and his life seemed to be entering a new and better chapter. Shaffer and his girlfriend were scheduled to leave the following Monday for Miami, and he had planned to propose to her after they reached their destination. The evening was a way of properly lubricating the beginning of the much-needed spring break. The trio entered a loud and boisterous two-story establishment named “The Ugly Tuna Saloona” (a dive bar with pretensions). Shaffer became separated from his friends soon after they entered. Their calls to his cell phone went straight to his voice mail. They eventually left the bar, assuming that Shaffer had gone home to bed. Their assumption was partially right.  He was gone.

The area in question was — and is — heavily blanketed in security cameras and monitors. Columbus Police detectives assigned to investigate the case repeated reviewed hours of video from the night in question and were able to account for the exit of each person who entered the bar that night but for one, that being Shaffer. Cadaver dogs went through every inch of the building but found nothing. The Saloona has gone to that great tavern in the sky, and the empty premises have been examined again, but it still refuses to give up its secrets. Shaffer went in but apparently never came out.

A disappearance such as this leaves its own uncomfortable ripples behind. Shaffer’s father died two years later as a result of a home accident without knowing what happened to his son.  An online memorial posting following his father’s death, allegedly from Shaffer and purportedly from the Virgin Islands, was concluded to be a hoax. Elaborate tips phoned into the detectives led nowhere. Rumors continue to this day, the most persistent being that Shaffer is pursuing a different life in a suburb of Atlanta. There have been “Where’s Waldo” sightings of him literally all over the world. Each false tip is a fresh wound for Shaffer’s brother, who understandably remains haunted and perplexed by the incident. The oddest post-disappearance manifestation, however, was experienced by Shaffer’s girlfriend, who is no doubt haunted to some degree by what occurred and what might have been. She continued calling his cell phone on a nightly basis after his disappearance. Her calls went straight to voicemail, each and all but for one that she placed approximately six months after he vanished. That call rang four times. It was found that the call had “pinged” off of a cell phone tour in a suburb southwest of Columbus. It was, unfortunately, another dead end.

Where did Shaffer go? And how did he get there? I’m repeating myself, but that area of High Street is heavily covered by surveillance. He was not seen leaving the building. It is all but obvious, however, that he did. I have my own theory, one that is unkind in some ways and that I accordingly keep to myself. Someday there might be an answer. Or not. There is no rule of the universe that states that all questions will one day be answered, that all mysteries will be revealed, other for than for the divine. The lesser ones, however, will still matter.

I’ve prattled on long enough, perhaps too long. Disappearances. What is the most puzzling unsolved one near you? Please share. And thank you as always for stopping by…

…and, like Columbo…I’ve got just one more very important item: Chag Urim Sameach to all of our many friends celebrating the Festival of Lights commencing tomorrow! We join you in spirit!

9+

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.

 

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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.

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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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