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: SOME KIND OF DEAD

Photo by Marks Polakovs. All rights reserved.

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome to The Kill Zone! Thank you for submitting Some Kind of Dead, your masterpiece in progress (and I mean that sincerely) to our First Page Critique:

Some Kind of Dead

By the time the dark blue BMW made a second pass past the bar, Andy Weber pegged them for amateurs. Unlocking the door he had just secured, he ducked back into the bar, keyed the alarm pad and then grabbed the cut-down Remington 870 that Gus kept below the register. Cops called it a “street sweeper” for good reason. Checking through the window for the car, he slipped outside and stood in the dark shadow of the doorway. As the sedan slowly rounded the corner at the far end of the block to make a third pass, Andy was ready for them.

The car drew even with the front door. Two mini-mag machine pistols began to emerge from the open back window on the driver’s side and Andy started unloading on the slowly moving car. First, the driver, to immobilize the vehicle, then the two passengers in the rear…one, two, three, and it was over just like that. The dead driver’s foot had jammed the accelerator. The Beemer, accelerating rapidly, entered the intersection against the light, right in the path of a fast moving gasoline tanker. The truck driver tried to avoid the car but he overcorrected and jackknifed the trailer, slamming into the BMW.” The tanker wasn’t as lucky. After hitting the car, it slid sideways through the intersection. The driver could see what was coming and jumped out, rolling to a stop. The tanker turned over, exploding in a ball of flame, engulfing three cars in the fireball. The driver stood, dazed, in the middle of the intersection.

Andy, satisfied that no one else was coming for him, picked up the ejected shells and returned the street sweeper to its rightful place under the bar. Resetting the alarm, he locked up and started off down the street, away from the carnage he just created. Tomorrow he would have to remember  to clean the shotgun and pay Gus for the three shells he used. “Amateurs”, he whispered to himself as he walked down the street.

 

This is simply terrific, Anon. I am predisposed to to love this anyway,, given that it sits solidly in my favorite literary genre — crime noir — but even after looking at it as critically as I could I found very, very little here with which to quibble. You draw the reader right in, hold their interest, create the proper dark mood and have the requisite mayhem and explosion which readers these days tend to expect right from the…well, from the first page. It reminds me of the paperback crime novels that I cut my reading teeth on back in the 1950s and which I read to this day. That said, I have a few things to mention in the hopes of making a terrific opening page a perfect one:

1) First paragraph:

— Let’s get everything parallel in the first sentence. The car goes around the block and Andy pegs “them” for amateurs. Who is them? Let’s change that to “By the time the dark blue BMW made a second pass past the bar, Andy Weber pegged its occupants for amateurs.”

— Wow, those guys really were amateurs. I know grade school cub scouts who could pull off  a better ambush than they attempted. I’m puzzled as to why they didn’t shoot Andy on the second pass. I assume they didn’t see him, even though he saw them. How about showing that to your readers like so (there are many different ways to this): “By the time the dark blue BMW made a second pass past the bar, Andy Weber pegged its occupants (see above) for amateurs.Gus’s doorway was the perfect place for observing without being observed. Andy had been able to clock the car’s occupants as they played two games of urban ring-around-the-rosy without their having a clue that he was watching. Unlocking the door…

2) Second paragraph:

— Let’s break up that compound sentence. Like so: “Two mini-mag machine pistols began to emerge from the open back window on the driver’s side. Andy stepped quickly out of the shadows, unloading on the slowly moving car.”

— …“ against the light, right in the path…” How about “…against the light, into the path…” instead?

— “The driver could see what was coming and jumped out, rolling to a stop.” I generally think of cars, rather than people, rolling to a stop (or when I’m driving, rolling through a stop).  I’d suggest this: “The driver could see what was coming and jumped out. He hit the ground and rolled until he ran out of blacktop.” Or something like that. There are a few different ways to write it.

3) Third paragraph:

Andy, satisfied that no one else was coming for him, picked up the ejected shells and returned the street sweeper to its rightful place under the bar. Resetting the alarm, he locked up and started off down the street, away from the carnage he just created. Tomorrow he would have to remember  to clean the shotgun and pay Gus for the three shells he used. “Amateurs”, he whispered to himself as he walked down the street.

You use the word “street” three times in the same short paragraph. Let’s eliminated the first and third ones. For the first, call the street sweeper a shotgun; as for the third: when Andy whispers “Amateurs” we already know he’s walking down the street because you just told us. You could end that paragraph with “Amateurs,” he whispered.”  (see below) and it would be just fine.

4) There are also a couple of typos:

Second paragraph: “ The car rolled twice, and came to rest on what was left of its tires.”  I suggest striking the comma in the sentence “ between “twice” and “and.”

Third paragraph, last sentence: Let’s stick that comma after “Amateurs” after the ‘s’ and before the final quotation mark.

Thank you again, Anon, for submitting this first page of SOME KIND OF DEAD. I sincerely cannot wait to see what follows. I will now sit back,  attempt to stay uncharacteristically quiet, and let our TKZ audience hold forth.

 

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The Corporal Works of Mercy

Caritas: 1559, Pieter Brugel the Elder

Bear with me, please. If you stick to the end of this humble offering it will help you with your writing and your life. Guaranteed. Just give me a few minutes.

I usually wake up in the morning with a coherent thought. It is often a song title or phrase — this morning it was “Gimme Danger” by The Stooges — but sometimes it will be a title or a name or an object. Several weeks ago on a Saturday morning the phrase “Corporal Works of Mercy” was standing there at 0500 hours reporting for duty in the forefront of my consciousness.

I hadn’t thought of the Corporal Works of Mercy for decades. They were drummed into me by rote memorization by the good, stern and strict Sisters of Charity at St. Agatha Grade School, and if you put a gun to my head I can still recite a few of them:  clothe the naked (this always elicited a snicker or two from one of the ten year olds in the classroom corner); visit the sick; feed the hungry; shelter the homeless; visit the imprisoned;  and bury the dead. I just checked myself and I only missed one: give water to the thirsty. Those nuns did a pretty good job. Anyway, the term nagged and tugged at me all day, right up to the time when I retired for the night.

I found out why a couple of hours later when I was awakened by a telephone call. The caller was an acquaintance that I hadn’t spoken with for several years, an alcoholic like myself. He somehow had my number which I had given him all that time ago, and was taking me up on the offer that I had made: he could call me anytime, anywhere, if he needed help. The caller needed help, badly. I provided it that night, and since then we’ve formed a de facto AA group with another guy we both know, a good guy whose problems would send most people into a ceiling beamed room, holding a chair in one hand and a rope in the other. It’s been a humbling experience.

Two days after that weekend phone call I got the news that an elderly client and friend of mine who had seemingly disappeared was in fact a patient in a rehabilitation center not ten minutes from my home. I immediately went to see him. It was the first time I had ever seen him smile. I told him that I would visit, and that I wouldn’t stay long — I’m not really a social animal — but that I would visit frequently, and have fulfilled that promise. I don’t have to, but I want to. I take the sense that he will not be leaving there, and I want to do what I can to help him with his passage.

Both of the above actions would qualify, I think, under the heading of “visit the sick.” There are a whole bunch of other works of mercy there for the choosing, however.  Writing a check to help someone out is wonderful; but what people in need really, really require is your time and an act of friendship. You don’t have to go very far to do it, either. There are volunteers needed at food banks and The Make-A-Wish Foundation and St. Vincent de Paul clothing stores and yes, at rehabilitation centers, places where you encounter people at their worst and lowest and need somebody to…heck, to be nice to them for a few minutes. Those of us who are a bit older and are watching those in our personal herd go ahead of us into the next adventure need to make sure that they don’t make the transition alone. With regard to the latter, women know this. Men generally do not. Women go and visit and sit by the bedside and hold their friends’ hands and give them comfort. Men sit and say, “Gee, I wonder how (insert name here) is doing. I probably should call him. Or something.” Guys, if you think about it, do it.

What I am here to tell you, however, is that it’s not a one way road. My writing and my work has gotten better since I have been visiting my one friend and meeting with my other.  What the Sisters didn’t tell us is that doing one or two or all of the Corporal Works of Mercy will focus and settle the doer. It is in a sense counterintuitive; if you’re spending time with someone else that’s time away from writing or working or all of those things that you have to do. Just so. But. But. There is a lot of focus on exercising the mind and the body. What we often forget, however, is that we need to exercise the spirit. I would submit to you that the spirit motivates our writing as much as the mind. Try it, at those points in your life when your life is low or troubled or afflicted. It works.

Thank you for bearing with me. I know that at least a few of you who visit these pages regularly are already heavily involved in the Corporal Works of Mercy, even if you don’t call them that. What do you do? What would you be interested in doing? Please share. I will be somewhat uncharacteristically quiet, but I’ll be here. Thank you.

 

 

 

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First Page Critique: Bringer of Chaos, Harvest of Blood

 

(Kirk Marsh, Getty Images. All rights reserved)

(Note from Sweet Joseph: Sorry that we are late this morning, TKZers! In absence of being able to determine why, I’ll chalk it up to a PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) problem. Thanks for your patience.)

Greetings, TKZers, and join me today in welcoming Anon du jour who has submitted the first page of his work Bringer of Chaos, Harvest of Blood for examination:

 Bringer of Chaos, Harvest of Blood

At the end of Earth’s twenty-seventh century, genslaves, humanity’s genetic

creations, fulfilled man’s every desire. They rebounded from disease and injury as if

immortal. Bred to need no rest, labor-genslaves performed menial and repetitive tasks.

Mankind permitted enough intelligence to work, but not enough to aspire beyond their

station. Warrior genslaves possessed unmeasured strength and massive size. They

fought humanity’s wars, died so man didn’t have to suffer, and revived to fight again.

Healer-genslaves with skill in medicine designed cures for man’s diseases. Artists

created mankind’s beauty. Nurturers and teachers cared for humanity’s children.

Scientist-genslaves designed additional genslaves, to make man’s life even more

pleasant. All with genetic shackles of obedience, making them content to remain

subservient.

While humanity relaxed, secure in a position of power, genslave-scientists created a

new order of beings with free will. Did their creation arise from faulty programming,

or a desire for freedom? Unhampered by genetic restraints, these new creatures

took the name Ultra. Brains and brawn, they solved every problem, survived every

wound.

Untouched by disease and unthwarted by starvation, they beat the shackles of death.

They were immortal.

Immortality changed everything.

When Ultras demanded freedom, humans claimed them soulless, inferior,

unworthy, and undeserving of equality. Humans tried to silence them, and when

that failed, punished them.

The Ultras seized liberty by force. Emboldened by the Ultras’ success,

other genslaves rebelled.

Power tilted. Ultras made slaves of their former captors.

Yet among Ultras, leadership arose that considered humans redeemable. They

advocated human freedom and their own government. They sought an end to

galaxy-wide conflict. They sought peace to halt senseless death and destruction,

foster growth, and increase trade.

In 4536 AD, after centuries of war, Ultras and humans met to discuss a truce.

At the peace talks, the Ultras suffered betrayal at the hand of their own kind.

Captured, forced into cryogenic sleep, transported across the galaxy, abandoned

on a planet whose name meant ever living, a half-million woke in their eternal prison.

Too far out on the rim to be worth developing, Sempervia possessed few

natural resources. The scant supplies humans left would have meant starvation and

lingering death for mortals, but the immortal Ultras had no such mercy.

They survived.

For this reason, the first few years in Sempervian history are remembered as the Harvest of Blood.

Anon, I’m going to focus primarily on substance and a bit on form here, sometimes intermingling the two, so I would appreciate it if you (and those of you who are kind enough to spend a portion of your Saturday with me) would bear with me to the end. I hope that it will be productive for you.

Let’s begin with the title, which reminds me of one of those Swedish death metal records that Jordan Dane probably has in her record collection. It infers that your book would fall into the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, something like Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian or Fritz Leiber’s Gray Mouser. I expected demons throwing fire, beheadings, supernatural disembowelment, and other things which I won’t get into here. After reading your submission, however, it looks like you are shooting for a speculative history novel and series — a very interesting one — with some military elements thrown in, a book that a publisher such Baen,to name but one, does so well. The title really doesn’t reflect that. It’s somewhat of a misdirection.    I would change the title to something a bit simpler which gets your idea across, such as GENSLAVES: Volume One — Rebellion.

The big issue here, however,  is that what you have sent isn’t as a practical matter  the first page of a Chapter One. It’s not even really the first page of a Prologue. It is more of an outline for a future history spanning hundreds years which will provide the spine for a novel, or maybe even several novels. I think you have a terrific idea, but you don’t have the beginning of a story or a book yet.  You have a whole book you can fill, my friend, a whole book where you can show us what you envision as a future history instead of telling us.

One suggestion — out of many possibilities — would be for you to start the first page of your novel on Sempervia, your exile planet.  Present it from the perspective of one of the Ultras on the planet who is either 1) hacking their way through a bunch of their fellow Ultras to get to something they need, 2) trying to stow away onto a rocket back to Earth or 3) escaping from a peril. Show us that Sempervia is a bad, lousy place to live, one where unicorns are eaten and recycled instead of worshipped. Show us that while dropping breadcrumbs of the history and the backstory through the narrative. Mix it up a bit, showing how the inhabitants of Sempervia survive on a day to day basis,  revealing what their short and long term plans are, and exploring how they got to be there in the first place, all the while sticking to that outline.

Maybe you have already done all of the above in pages two through six hundred of what you have written. That is all well and good; but you need to start the book off in a different manner, in order to pull a prospective agent, editor, or reader into it. Think of your first page — going to back to the spirit which your current title evokes — as the hook which pulls the eyeball of the reader into the story. Folks have short attention spans these days. You need to grab them and keep them before they pick up the television remote and start streaming the first season of Animal Kingdom.

If you want a relatively quick and excellent example of how to do something like this, see if you can get a reading copy of the Gold Key edition of the comic book MAGNUS, ROBOT FIGHTER 4000 AD by Russ Manning ( from the 1963 edition, NOT the relaunches that have been published since) in your local library’s graphic novel section. The first few panels of the story, if memory serves, quickly give the readers example of robots doing drudge work before Magnus suddenly shows up, and, after fleeing from the robot police,  uses martial arts to kick rivets and take serial numbers. Manning gradually informs the reader as to how people let robots take over more and more duties (like making coffee, checking people into  hotels, and taking orders at Panera Bread) to the point where robots are running things and human beings are becoming subservient without really realizing it. It isn’t your plot, but it does involve a future history, and Manning, bless his heart, shows us all how to tell a future history story effectively. If you want a longer example, check out E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series, or Robert H. Heinlein’s future history series. The latter is particularly accessible.

I have a couple of other points of correction, applying to form:

— Science fiction readers love those new names for future objects. You should be consistent when you create and use them. You start off with “labor-genslaves” (hyphen) and then you mention “Warrior genslaves” (no hyphen) instead of “Warrior-genslaves” before returning to “healer-genslaves” and “scientist-genslaves,” the latter of which turn into “genslave-scientists.” Since you started with “(insert type of genslave here) – genslaves,” when naming your characters, follow that format throughout your first page, and indeed, your novels, and the ones that will come later in this ambitious future history.

— If the genslaves were genetically shackled to be obedient, thus making them content to be subservient, they aren’t going to be emboldened by the Ultras’ success. “Emboldened” wouldn’t be in their genetic programming any more than “obedience” is included in a cat’s genetic makeup, even as they watch the dog doing so and thus being allowed to stay another day, go for rides, etc. Just saying.

— The first time that you mention that the high-end genslaves “took the name Ultra,” set the name off, like so:  “Ultra” or Ultra. Just the first time.

I will now remain uncharacteristically quiet (for most of the day) while our TKZers offer their own invaluable insight. And thank you, Anon, for stepping up and giving us a reason to be here today!

 

 

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Inspired by Tragedy

It is an unfortunate truth that the most interesting tales are mid-wived by tragedy.  No one is interested in a book or a story about the hundred of airplane flights that take off and land safely each day, or of the thousands — millions — of honest transactions and interactions which occur among our fellow human beings in any given hour. It is, rather, the stories that have an element of the poignant, the violent, and the sorrowful that pique our interest. One could cite many reasons for this and from several sources, be they psychological or religious. When we hear of a child gone missing or an acquaintance’s loved one passing, we may feel sorrow but we also feel, to be honest, a kind of shame of relief that the tragedy is not our own, even as it haunts us. Winston Churchill is credited with saying “Nothing is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Just so.

I believe that this is particularly true of those of us who read and write fiction in the mystery, thriller, and horror genres. Ironically, my favorite book of this type is a work of nonfiction entitled WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP by Michael Lesy. WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP is not a narrative. Lesy compiled photographs taken by Charles Van Schaick in and around rural Jackson County, Wisconsin in the late nineteenth century, and interspersed them among hundreds of transcribed newspaper clippings from the same area to create WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP. The result is a disturbing and unsettling collection of bizarre events which appear unconnected but which taken together seem to document a rural hive madness. To name but a few: the elderly mother of an imprisoned man commits suicide in a particularly dramatic fashion; a respected family man with a reputation as a hard worker dies of an overdose of morphine, leaving only a cryptic note; and a man seeking cheap transportation finds his trip unexpectedly ending in a gory tableau.

The dark beauty of the book for a reader or a writer is that one can open it and random and be enthralled, horrified, and inspired. With regard to the latter, that isn’t just me talking and/or opining. WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP has inspired everyone from Stephen King (he cites the book as the inspiration for his story “1922”) to musicians (Static-X named an album after the book) to late night cartoons (the cult classic series The Heart She Holler). The transcribed newspaper accounts are quite short; if you’re seeking inspiration and in a writer’s group, you could pick an account at random and throw it into the group just to see what each person creates from the spark. I’d be willing to bet the breadth of Jackson County and all that is on it that the stories would be wildly divergent.

WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP has gone out of print a couple of times, but it’s currently readily available for sale off- and online thanks to the fine folks at the University of New Mexico Press. Whether you need a prod creatively, desire inspiration to appreciate your current circumstances, or just want to be quietly horrified, you should check this book out. Oh, and there’s a movie too, which is quite good as well. But we prefer books, don’t we?

My question for you: have you experienced — either first or second hand — a tragedy which has had a long-term influence or affect upon your writing and/or your life? That haunts you, inappropriately and without warning? Be as general or as detailed as you wish. I don’t want to go into detail about mine, but it involves running with a stick. I didn’t let my poor kids run or walk with anything sharper than a limp noodle in their hands as a result.

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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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