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.

The Graveyard of Stories

Photo by Chris Liu, unsplash.com

I have at least once before mentioned in passing how what we see with respect to a published novel — or for that matter, any work of art — is but the tip of the spear, the polished, honed, and sharpened result of a whole lot of effort. I happened across something recently that everyone who labors in the arts to whatever degree of success needs to read over and over about again about getting to that tip. 

You may know of John Clarkson. He is an extremely talented author whose novels, particularly those in his current James Beck series, stand as an example of what the job of writing looks like when it is perfectly and professionally done. John intermittently blogs and recently told a story about his current work-in-progress. I will summarize it but you really need to read John’s brief dissertation to get the full flavor of what happened. John describes the process of writing what would have been the third novel in the Beck series, and realizing, upon completion, that it didn’t work (and why). He concluded that it could not be fixed so he trashed it and started over. His account is illuminating, tragic, hopeful, and ultimately inspiring. Oh, and it is very brave, too. John, in workmanlike, understated prose gives us the reasons why what would have been his latest novel didn’t come together. Ouch. How many of us would willingly and intentionally exhibit what we perceived to be a screwup on the internet town square in a forthright manner and without reservation? I know of at least one person who would pause before doing so. He’s typing these words right now. 

The truth is that John is not alone in what he went through, though he is certainly walking point when describing the experience. Not every written volume of every successful series makes it to the finish line.  They lay on the blacktop and the finish line rises up to meet them. Sometimes being successful is as much knowing what doesn’t work as what does work, and being brave enough to pull the pin, rather than hoping that no one will notice. There is a term used for these books which don’t make pass the author’s own white glove test. Such manuscripts are called “trunk novels.” I am reasonably sure that every successful author has at least one. I daresay that we will probably not walk with Jack Reacher down every mile of middle America that he traverses, or that we see the account of every mystery that Spenser or Bryant and May encounter and/or solve. What is different here is that John takes us through the process of determining whether the book goes to the agent or the trunk. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s an informative one.

It doesn’t just happen with books.  Music? It happens all the time. I personally know of one band that was huge in the 1980s and labored for seven months on their fifth album. They spent well into six figures while doing so. There was a change of personnel at their record label and the new sheriff decided to pull the plug on the new record on the theory that the label wasn’t going to chase good money after bad. The band was informed of this in the middle of a tour. The same thing happens in the film industry. At least with books you can sometimes and to some extent control that portion of your destiny, as John has.

My best advice? Be like John. Confront the failure, embrace the suck, and try again. Oh, and you might pick up a book or five of his to see what he is striving for and will no doubt achieve once again. You won’t be sorry.

That is all I have for today. How is your summer going? Are things humming along or are you turning a project into compost and trying again? Good luck and best wishes either way. 



False Crime

Photo courtesy Emile Guillemot, unsplash.com

Before I get rolling let me say that I hope that you are all checking out Debbie Burke’s always informative and entertaining “True Crime Thursday”  feature which appears (by amazing coincidence on the last Thursday) of each month on TKZ. I am giving away the punchline here with my own “Fake Crime” post, which will not be a regular feature. I just could not pass this story up, however. It is amusing, cautionary, and interesting. I hope you find it worth your time. 

This past week police officers in my city responded to a “robbery in progress” call at a local car wash. The establishment in question is one of those semi-automated establishments usually found on the out lots of busy shopping centers. The reporting party was a distraught male who said that, while preparing to get his car washed, a pair of despicable cads had robbed him at knifepoint of his wedding ring. 

We have a wonderful police department in my city. Here is but one example: when my older son was a wee lad his bicycle was stolen. A police officer 1) came out to the house to take a report and 2) subsequently recovered (!) the bike.  They take all reports seriously, even ones that, um, might not pass the smell test. The fragrances in the case of this robbery included Eau de whystealaman’sweddingringwhentheycouldhavetakenhis wholecar perfum. However, the officers dutifully conducted a thorough investigation. This included taking a report from the complainant,  putting crime scene tape up around the carwash, and reviewing surveillance camera footage of the area during the time period when the alleged incident took place. 

The surveillance images told the tale. The complainant’s star turn showed him driving up to the car wash area, sitting in his car for several minutes, and then calling someone. The time of the phone call coincided with the time of his 911 call to the police department. The gentleman, when confronted with this evidence, ultimately admitted that he had staged the whole thing because he had lost his wedding ring and didn’t want to admit it to his wife. Wink wink. One might be forgiven for concluding that it is ordinarily difficult for someone, particularly a man, to lose a wedding ring while they are out and about if said ring remains on one’s finger. We will not presume to hazard a guess as to why he might have taken it off. He is already in enough trouble. Trouble, you say? Why, yes. I live in a city which actually prosecutes those who file false police reports. Our friend accordingly had to explain to his wife not only that he lost his ring but also that he filed a false police report to cover up that he had lost the ring. Oh, the humanity! The icing on this manure cake is that he later reported, somewhat sheepishly, that he had found the ring after all. It was not reported where he found it but my guess would be that it was discovered somewhere it should not have been. 

I found the story somewhat but not entirely amusing. It took two officers off of the grid to investigate what was an intentional goat fling. The car wash was shut down for several hours, inconveniencing potential patrons and keeping the owner from making the daily nut needed not only to meet fixed costs and but also to hopefully turn a profit for the day. It may not be a total laugh but it is a cautionary tale. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Burp (or worse) in public and you’ve got a gaggle of ten-year-olds recording audio-visual of you from seven different points of view and then uploading it to YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms. That’s not good. “Character” used to be defined as behaving well when no one is around to see it.  We’re running out of those places. I went out to mow my lawn yesterday and didn’t mention it to anyone. When I got back in the house there was an ad on my phone asking if I was tired of mowing the lawn and suggesting I call a local lawn service. I was told that my cellphone probably heard my lawn mower going, noted my absence of cellphone/online activity, and figured out what I was doing. I wonder if it would send me an ad for scuba diving equipment if I threw it in a reservoir. In any event, be careful of what you do. Anywhere. 

Photo courtesy Siarhi Horbach, unsplash.com

To leave things on a totally unrelated “up” note…were you aware that there is something called a “motion activated bed light” being marketed. The idea is that if you are sleeping in a dark room and get out of bed a soft but very visible light appears and keeps you from stubbing your toe, stepping the residue of cat accidents, etc. You can find out more about the item here. I will confess to wondering if perhaps it might provide an unexpected light show under certain other circumstances but will leave that to the more fortunate of you out there to determine. 

Have a great weekend and Fourth of July…and thank you for yet again stopping by. 



The Churn of the Screw

Photo by Steve Johnson courtesy of unsplash.com

Last week I received one of those letters from the “Department of the Treasury.” It was not, alas, an invitation to apply for employment with the Secret Service. It was instead a letter from the Internal Revenue Service advising me that I owed additional money with regard to my 2018 federal tax return, and giving me three weeks to pay it.

Some of you may have had the pleasure of dealing with such a notice personally. If you are an author or derive at least some of your income from self-employment, your return almost automatically gets a bit of extra attention which may ultimately generate such a notice to you. Others among you may have friends or relatives who have for one or more reasons been on the receiving end of a letter. This particular letter wasn’t my first rodeo. I have worked for fifty-one years and filed an equal number of federal returns. I have in that time received five letters of this type which isn’t too bad a track record, I guess, but I’ve learned a little about what and what not to do as a result.

I am today accordingly going to provide some very basic advice about how you can deal with such a situation, and possibly save yourself some money in the process. I offer this to those of you who prepare and file your own tax returns, as opposed to having a local or national tax service do that for you. Some of those will represent you before the IRS. If so, contact your preparer immediately upon your receipt of the letter.

To begin: eat the frog first. If you don’t want to read the rest of this post, fine, because you’ve just read my most important piece of advice. Open the letter and read it immediately upon your receipt of it. Do not ignore it, set it aside, or assume that it is a mistake. Doing so will simply cause the generation of more notices to you. Interest will accumulate. Matters will escalate. Open the letter, read it, and see what the IRS wants.

Next. When you receive such a notice it is probably because the IRS wants money. The amount is usually stated up front. Forget that for a moment. You want to know the basis for the determination that you are deficient. That is usually buried deep in the notice but it’s there.

Find it. Then get out your Federal tax return for the appropriate year and review it, particularly with regard to the area which the IRS says is causing the deficiency. If you see that the IRS is correct, waiting or ignoring action will not cause the matter to go away. You will continue to receive letters. Your file will eventually be assigned to an agent and the letters will become more personal. The matter will become more difficult to settle. Instead, pay the amount owed if you are able. If not, there is a telephone number that will be listed on the notice which you can call to work out a payment plan. Interest will still accrue, but if you work out a plan and stick to it the letters will (or at least should) stop.  

What happened in my case is that the IRS said that I made a computational error resulting in a deficit. I got out my return and the IRS was wrong. I had actually made TWO computational errors. Whoever or whatever reviewed my return found one. I found a second error which substantially mitigated the first error. I accordingly set all of the paperwork aside and streamed the fifth season of Black Mirror, knowing that the IRS would eventually locate the second error and send a second letter with a recalculated deficiency.

Not really.

I got to work. The notice listed a number I could call if I disagreed with the agency’s determination. I got my ducks lined up in front of me in writing and called. I was on hold for forty-five minutes before I was told that due to a “network error” my call could not be handled and that I should try to call again later. “Network error,” I discovered, is agency-speak for “lunch.” Don’t call at or near the hours of 11:00A – 1:00P central time. Everyone is at lunch.

I called back at 2:30P EDT and after approximately a quarter-hour I spoke with a very businesslike but civil call center person.  I politely explained my position and stated that I was of course (of course) willing to immediately pay the resulting (lesser) deficiency plus interest. I also asked for the best way to proceed in order to prevent correspondence from crossing. I was told to put my position in writing and (snail!)mail it to the address from which I received the original notice. Done and done.

Next. If you receive a decision in your favor, all to the good. If not, you do have appeal rights. If the dispute has its basis in an issue of tax law that you are going to run into frequently going forward — a business deduction, for example — you may want to obtain representation. If it is a smaller amount arising over a one-time mistake (or two) or a misunderstanding, you may wish to attempt to resolve it yourself. If so, keep in mind that if you run into an IRS representative who won’t budge off of the one-note, thank them for their time and politely ask to speak to their supervisor. Primary level agents are firmly ensconced within the sinecure of the agency’s position. Supervisory level agents are more conciliatory toward the taxpayer. They are not giving anything away, by any means, but are more often more receptive to a taxpayer with regard to a contested issue. Just remember your polite words.

Oh. One more thing. You call the IRS. It does not call you. If you get a call from somebody purporting to be from the IRS (or, as I have in the past, the FBI, or the U.S. Attorney’s office) telling you to go to Wal Mart and buy Visa gift cards or whatever to pay off your account, don’t. It’s a scam.

Hopefully, you will never need any of this information and have never needed it. That said, does anyone have any tax stories they want to share? If so, please do. Whether you do or not, Happy Father’s Day to all of you dads!





Artwork Courtesy bridgemanart.com

“It” happened again.  

“It” is the story I presented in this spot several weeks ago. To wit: I awoke quite early after dreaming the beginning, middle and ending of a novel, got up, typed everything I could remember, and started an outline. That work in progress is now titled The Lake Effect and other than for those occasions where I get in my own way it has actually been fun. I am not finished but I am seeing the highway distance signs assuring me that I am headed in the right direction at speed.

However, “it” has happened again. I woke up Friday morning with a dream vividly lodged in my head, a dream that laid out another novel, beginning, middle, and end. I for a number of reasons (none of them really acceptable) could not get up but I had a pen and a notepad at the ready and scribbled a bunch of notes to my daytime self, all of which actually made sense when I woke up for a second time Friday morning with paper all over the place. The novel? It is, as with The Lake Effect, way outside of my writing comfort zone. The Lake Effect is a love story with a bit of science fiction attached. The latest dream —so far unnamed — is a dystopian thriller. I hate dystopian novels, as a rule. I have been able to read, enjoy, and finish two in my lifetime: Dahlgren by Samuel  R. Delaney and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. My humble effort could be pitched as “Long John Silver and John Wick team up at the end of time and make one final effort to hit the restart button.”

I haven’t decided whether to set this newly inspired work aside until I finish The Lake Effect or work on both. What I really wonder, however — and this is a rhetorical question — is…why now,  as I do the slim, slow slide into age sixty-eight (September 11, if you’re wondering when to send the Amazon gift cards)? Am I the recipient of some sort of precursor to the “check engine” light flashing on, or is a blood clot going to jackknife in the middle of my cranial freeway at rush hour in a couple of months, and is this last-ditch creative spurt is a traffic alert?

I ask because something else is happening as well. I’ve had a major change in appetite (food, that is) over the past five weeks. I suddenly have no desire for what had been my four major food groups: pasta, donuts, french fries, and kettle chips. I no longer find appealing what I had to resist. A friend brought over a large bag of my favorite potato chips — Zapps Mardi Gras Kettle Chips — the other day as a gift. Up until a few weeks ago I would have opened them to share with her as a pretext to doing a deep dive in the bag. They’re still sealed. Glory be, ‘tis a miracle, Father Mahoney. Meat is going the same way. I’m down to eating meat as part of one meal per day, at most. It hasn’t been a conscious or deliberate choice. It’s just what I feel. I’ve eaten more oatmeal and soup in the last month or so than I have in my entire life. My cupboard and refrigerator look as if they have been taken over by Jack LaLanne (well, that is a gross exaggeration, but it’s changed quite a bit). This all occurred after I dreamt The Lake Effect.

I don’t know if this is even worthy of a question, but since we have a bunch of artistic minds out there, and many of them are seasoned, let me ask: have any of you experienced a sea change like this? Was it a precursor to something good, bad, or indifferent? What ultimately happened? Thank you, and enjoy your weekend.


Message in a Book

A few weeks ago I took my granddaughter to a used bookstore. I, of course, did some browsing myself. I came upon a volume that was on my always-increasing want list and bought it. One thing led to another, as they often do, and the book — The Best American Mystery Stories 2015, edited by James Patterson — sat patiently on my headboard until a few days ago.

I was looking for something short to read before bedtime and which did not involve a screen. The aforementioned volume seemed to be the perfect source for something of that nature. I picked it up, opened it, and started turning pages. I reached the Foreward and found two small white cards inserted into the book’s gutter. One was a business card for a hospital liaison employed with a local senior living community. The other was the gift card which I photographed and have reproduced above.

I have since been intermittently preoccupied with this discovery. It does not look as if the book was ever read past the Foreward, if, indeed, at all. I would like to think that the recipient, after whatever life event occasioned their stay at the facility, quickly recovered and was too busy enjoying liquid (as the card suggested) and horizontal (as the card did not!) refreshments to read the book. This, I fear, is wishful thinking. It is probably far more likely that they have gone ahead, leaving the book behind to be packed up with others and taken to the used bookstore where it eventually passed to me.

That would be nosy me. I went so far as to call the person whose name and telephone number were on the business card, assuming, due to the close proximity of the cards in the book, that they were the giver. My intent was to explain that the book passed into my hands and to ask, generally, if the recipient ever got to drink that Manhattan, thinking that answering that question, as phrased, would not violate any HIPAA rules. Alas. The giver no longer worked at the facility. Another unsolved mystery.

I wonder what happened to the last owner of the book in question.  It bothers me, probably because of my age, and also probably because I’m in contact with a number of my high school classmates as we approach our fifty-year reunion in July. Many are joking that they are not going to send in their reservations before June 30. They are joking, but not really laughing. I totally get it. We inhabit fragile and temporary shells that slip and slide toward an unmarked and unknown use-by date.

Enough of sad-sack me for today. Have you ever found a cryptic message or note in a book? If so, please share. Thank you for stopping by, and enjoy your weekend.





One of my biggest problems when writing is that I tend to get in my own way. This has occurred with some frequency during my latest project, currently titled The Lake Effect, which I discussed here a few weeks ago. You may or may not recall that I dreamt the beginning, middle, and ending of what is a love story. All that I have had to do is write the thing. This I am doing,  and am having fun doing it. Occasionally, however, I can’t leave well enough alone. I know that I should simply tell the story. I’m doing that, but occasionally I seem to consider myself to be duty bound to insert into the narrative examples of how clever and knowledgeable I consider myself to be.  As one might expect, I am usually wrong. The result is that my narrative bogs down. I’m not getting tripped up in detail. Sometimes one should stop and smell the roses, so long as the scent is pertinent in some way to the story. My mistake has been that I will be moving from Point A to Point B but will insist on stopping and describing Points A1, A2, and A3 along the way as well. I don’t consider my reader, who (hopefully) will want to get to Point B with all due and deliberate speed. I do this and  wonder why it isn’t working, then realize that I am boring myself. If I am putting myself to sleep, then what am I doing to my poor reader, who will probably leave the building, never to return?

I have found that as a sort of enjoyable and tutorial penance for such a writing error I am best served by watching a few episodes of Highway Patrol.  It was one of my favorite television series in the 1950s and remains so today. Each episode was about twenty-five minutes long. They would shoot the episodes in two to three days, twice per week, and broadcast close to forty episodes a season. This was done on a very limited budget. There were no fiery car crashes or extended shootouts through shopping malls.  There were other constraints. Broderick Crawford was the lead actor. He played Dan Mathews, the taciturn, grizzled head of the unnamed Highway Patrol unit featured in the series. Crawford’s parts in each episode had to be shot in the morning because he was usually well-toasted by lunch. It somehow worked. Crawford delivered his dialog staccato-style (“Youshouldbesorryforwakin’meathishourwhaizzit?”) (“CorneraBrownanChocorantwoaclock”) (“21-50taheadquarters10-4”) when ordering his officers about. The cadence of Crawford’s diction, or lack thereof, was perfect for an episodic series where time was of the essence.  There was also a formula applied to the shows which becomes obvious after a few different viewings. It was simple. A crime would be committed, Matthews and his team would chase their tales, and some evidence would be discovered, all within the first half of the episode. The last half of the episode (all twelve minutes or so) would show Mathews and his associates bringing the evildoers to justice. Voice-over narration by a gentleman named Art Gilmore gave each episode a quasi-documentary feel (“Burglary is the alley cat of crime, wandering the night in search of prey”). At the conclusion of each episode, Mathews, as he was getting into his car, would stop, look at the camera, and break the fourth wall by directly addressing the television audience with a pithy safe driving platitude, such as “It isn’t the car that kills…it’s the driver!” Just so.  

Each episode of Highway Patrol was suspenseful and exciting even with such a cut and dry formula. Nothing ever really felt left out. Each minute — each second — was important. Highway Patrol was the first television series to utilize fast cutting — a few different action shots of just a couple of seconds’ duration (usually consisting of a police car racing to a crime, or chasing a suspect) — to move the action along.  They also didn’t spend a lot of time getting the viewer from Point A to B. Mathews would get a lead, jump up from his chair and say, “Let’s go!” The next scene might show him driving quickly down a street for about two seconds (stock footage was often used, as Crawford at one point during the series run had his real-world driver’s license suspended for driving under the influence) followed by Mathews getting out of the car at his destination and shooting it out with the criminals. Bing bang boom.

If while writing you find yourself stuck in a thicket of your own design and wondering what to weed and what to water watch a few episodes of Highway Patrol. It is possible that you will absorb its lessons about narrative and storytelling by osmosis. All four glorious seasons (Crawford said the series stopped because they ran out of crimes) can be found on DVD,  YouTube and a couple of cable channels. It works for me. If you already have a method of bringing your writing errors and ommissions on track, please share. And thank you. 1075 to 21-50. 10-4.



First Books on the Moon

April has been quite a month for scientific events. Mark Alpert last Saturday discussed the recent presentation of an image of a black hole at the center of Galaxy M87 and gave us some insight, otherwise absent from most accounts, into the importance of what was revealed. Another attempted milestone which occurred this month was not as successful as the image presentation but was not entirely a failure, either. It is also extremely relevant to what we do.

I am referring to the crash landing on Earth’s moon of the SpaceIL Beresheet Lander. Lost in the disappointment of the Lander’s failure to achieve a soft lunar arrival was that 1) the Lander carried something named “The Arch Lunar Library” which 2) may well have survived the impact.  This particular payload is the first in a planned series of lunar archives prepared and maintained by the Arch Mission Foundation, a non-profit organization that tasks itself with maintaining a billion-year history of Planet Earth (this is done, I would guess, by people who, unlike myself, do not spend their time streaming Turkish crime series on Netflix). The Arch Lunar Library was preserved on something called “Nanofiche,” which is a disc-shaped medium as opposed to those flimsy cards of a similar name that spill all over the place when you try to get them into a reader at your local library without adult supervision.  Nanofiche will apparently last for thousands of years. The medium is so indestructible that it can probably be used to crush the last cockroach. Nothing damages it except for saltwater. It can outlast everything else, however, including, apparently, a crash lunar landing at otherwise destructive speed.

So what does the payload contain? Many, many things, including millions of images of pages of books: all sorts of books, fiction, non-fiction, how-to, what have you, books. It’s an ongoing project, so maybe a book that you are writing right now will be included in the future. I don’t mean to make you choke or anything, but there you go. Keep writing. Before you resume writing again, however, I strongly urge you to read the overview of the Lunar Library which will answer many of the questions I had, such as why someone was doing this. The article is a bit long, but it’s a quick read. It’s hair-raising in spots, but in a good way.

My question: if you were to pick a book to include in a project like this, which would it be? I’m not talking about your favorite book, necessarily. I’m talking about the book that you feel would be most appropriate, most deserving, for a project like this. My choice is an easy one: From the Earth to the Moon, by Jules Verne. What say you?

Happy Easter and Chag Pesach Sameach to all of my friends As Leonard Cohen said in a very different context, it would be a real drag without you.



A Different Path

Photo courtesy of Alex Holyoake from Unsplash.com

I had an interesting experience a few nights ago. I consider it to be a writer’s dream. Literally. I dreamt an entire novel in one night. Better yet, I woke up and remembered every bit of it, from beginning to (happy though bittersweet) ending. I reached for the notepad and pen that I keep at the bedside for such occasions and scribbled the notation “when Ed dropped in” so that I would remember to work on it the next morning. The dream was so vivid and compelling, however, that I got up, grabbed my Chromebook,  and typed a synopsis, outline, and what passed for my early purposes as a first, last and middle chapter. I’ve been working on it since. Every once in a while, however, a little voice in my head will pipe up (I call it my “pipsqueak”) and say, “No. You don’t know how to do this.” It’s right. I don’t know how to do “this.” I refuse, however, to let “this” stop me.

The “this” with respect to my work in progress is that it is probably a romance novel. That’s a section of the bookstore that I don’t normally walk through. I read The Bridges of Madison County when it was first published, but that was a long time ago.  For right now, however, I am going to worry about writing the story I am going to tell the best way I possibly can, and not worry about the genre thing. That’s an issue for down the road.

The title of the work, at least as of this moment, is The Lake Effect. It has elements of science fiction (with the sharp edges filed off) that form the bedrock of the plot. Almost all of the book takes place in a tiny village in northern Ohio, with a dip into a small town in southern Louisiana and, for about half of a crucial moment, in rural France. There’s a tough and tender female protagonist who functions as the fulcrum of the novel, and while there is a love triangle of sorts she isn’t Princess Leia and the story will never be mistaken for  Part Ten of Star Wars. There are some quietly suspenseful moments, and there is also a “ticking clock” of sorts, but you won’t find any explosions, karate, or gunfire. Yes, this work in progress is quite different for me. It is uncharted territory, but that’s okay. I’m walking forward with eyes open and hands steady, and fingers typing away.

So why go outside my comfort zone? One reason is that I don’t leave a gift on the table. The gift, in this case, is an entire novel dreamed out and remembered. It may not be the type of story I usually try to tell, but it’s the one I have, and the one that I will give to you one way or the other. The genre is irrelevant. Authors, as we know, actually do jump genres without breaking kneecaps.  Blake Crouch started by writing serial killer novels, jumped to a contemporary western, and then wrote science fiction novels. He had two — TWO! — television series adapting his works in the same year (!) and another one is coming. TKZ’s own indescribably wonderful Laura Benedict recently blurred her own fiction lines, moving seamlessly from the supernatural suspense genre to the domestic thriller shelves, and with superlative results (read The Stranger Inside if you haven’t as yet). Going back a bit, an author named John Jakes wrote a ton of science fiction and western novels which anyone who read them loved. Very few read them. He then turned to writing historical fiction and not only had lines of folks waiting to buy and read the new ones but also had them adapted to television. Think Paul Sheldon in Misery by Stephen King without the alcohol and the crazy fan. Richard Matheson, a much-beloved horror author who King has credited as his major influence, wrote Somewhere in Time, a romantic novel with science fiction overtones which is treasured to this day. There are many other examples. I’m not going to compare myself to all of those wonderful, successful authors (and the others I haven’t named) who have done this. I will, however, use them as models.

Oh, another thing. I am miserable at outlining. A lot of writers are. I have a friend and client, an author who writes novels in huge chunks but never outlines. He emailed me the other morning to tell me that he had written 22,000 words in the last four days and still had no idea where his latest novel was going. I understand. But. I have an entire outline. It has a beginning and an ending and a wonderful middle — usually the hardest part — so I am writing most of the middle first, going, like John Coltrane, in both directions at once while listening to the Top 40 songs of 1944 for inspiration. I’ve changed a few things in the original outline along the way, not because the original idea did not work, but because I thought of something else that worked better. There is a mentality at work — and it’s not just with me — that says if one has an outline you have to rigidly stick to it. No. It’s your outline. You can change it if you want when you want and for whatever reason you want. Think of it as a house that you love but are going to remodel. To go back to Misery, the ending of that book is far, far different from what King originally envisioned. While his original ending appeals to me in a sort of sick, twisted way, I think he ultimately wrote a better book. All he did was change his outline just a bit.

My advice du jour, after saying all of that, is 1) don’t give up the story you have for the story you want. They might both be the same thing; 2) outline. You can change it. It’s yours. You will, however,  have a clear idea initially of where you are starting, where you are going, and how you are going to get there. Just leave yourself free to make rest stops, take detours, and see the sights along the way; 3) if you get an idea in the middle of the night, get upright and commit as much as you can to paper, screen, or whatever. You can change it later, run with it, or put it aside, but once you forget it, it’s gone; and 4) don’t listen to your pipsqueak under any circumstance.

Now please enjoy your weekend, and thank you for dropping by.




Start with a Line…


.comPhoto courtesy Jordan Steranka from unsplash.com

“Start with a line…” Okay. How about…”My emotional development was arrested when I was eighteen and given a life sentence.” Actually, I don’t mean that type of line when I wrote the above title. I meant the modern version of the old campfire game where someone thinks of a sentence to start off a story, the person next to them offers a second sentence to continue the tale, the next person creates a third sentence, and round and ‘round the campfire they go until the story is complete or something like it. It was inevitable that someone would create a new version of this game. Several someones have, actually.

I learned about the new versions of this storytelling method through a friend whose high school and college-age daughters have been writing short stories and novels online in collaboration with like-minded people from all over the world. There are a number of websites dedicated to this purpose. Each has their own rules. One gives a potential contributor a couple of minutes to come up with a sentence with a set word maximum. Another imposes a character limit, in terms of letters, numbers, and spaces (as opposed to, you know, people in the story).  There is at least one that permits contributors to critique each other. I bet that gets interesting. The stories, as one might expect, can meander quite a bit and the quality of the contributions and the ultimate sum of the parts can vary wildly. A number of the finished products actually turn out pretty well, however.

Two of my favorite sites of this nature are Folding Story and Novlet, but there are others to be found if you google “stories collaborative written online” or something similar. My participation has been limited to reading as opposed to contributing (I’ve been too busy watching Love, Death & Robots on Netflix, notwithstanding the warning that it is for mature audiences). It seems likely, however, that these and similar sites would be good places todevelop the ability to craft killer sentences or paragraphs by hitching them to developing stories, get the creative juices flowing during an episode of writer’s block, or even suffer the slings and arrows of peer critique if you are looking for that sort of thing and Facebook happens to be down for the day.

Please take a few minutes, check out the sites I mentioned (or find your own!), and let us know what you think. If you have been a participant on one or more of them and are so inclined please share your experience. Thank you. And enjoy the first Saturday of Spring 2019. Boing!



If You REALLY Want to Do This…

I want to speak to those of you who are at the early stage of what will hopefully be a long and successful career in the arts, whether it be with writing, performing, painting, sculpting, or whatever. Please note the word “hopefully” above. Many are called, but very few get there. I’m not attempting to discourage you. My attitude is that somebody is going to be successful and it very well might be me, or you, or both, so let’s go for it. Realize, however, that failure is a repetitive possibility, and that you have to be prepared to keep trying. 

That said, I am going to strongly recommend that you watch a documentary about an artist — a sculptor — who briefly tasted success and quickly lost it before dying in obscurity. Success? We’re talking a government-sponsored museum devoted entirely to his work. That is success of a sort by any standard. Six years after the opening of the museum, however,  it was closed and virtually all of the artist’s work was destroyed, memorialized only by photographs and some miniature models which he recreated. The guy picked himself up, supported himself with jobs that were by any standard a poor use of his talent, and continued to work at what he loved practically up to the day he died.

I am referring to Stanislaw Szukalski. Odds are that you have never heard of him. I certainly hadn’t until a friend recommended Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski, produced by George and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose family helped to support the man in the twilight of his life. The video, available on Netflix, is narrated primarily though not exclusively by Glenn Bray, a bibliophile and comic book collector. I want you to be as surprised delighted, depressed and as startled as I was so I am going to only give you the general highlights of what you will find. Bray discovered Szukalski’s work by utter happenstance in 1971 and became obsessed with it, the more so when he learned that Szukalski was living only a few miles away from him. Bray reached out to Szukalski and met with him, forging a friendship which lasted for some fifteen years until Szukalski’s death. Bray, who was active in the underground comic book industry, introduced artists in the medium to Szukalski as well. They had seen his work without knowing it, and in all probability you have as well. Szukalski designed one of the more intriguing and unsettling sets seen in the original film version of King Kong. It is his freestanding work, however, that is stunning. His sculptors and artwork are by turns breathtaking, disturbing, erotic, and startling. He never stopped creating, whether it be sculpting, drawing, or writing. Szukalski was also obsessed with the origins of humankind and the human condition. He devoted a significant amount of time researching and writing the theory of Zermatism, leaving the world several bound volumes containing over ten thousand pages of text and over forty thousand drawings illustrating and, to his mind, proving his point. He believed that humanity originated on Easter Island and that human beings have been controlled by…but you will want to watch Struggle to get the rest of that story.

Struggle is loaded with comments from Bray, DiCaprio the elder, and various artists. There are also still shots of Szukalski’s work from the 1930s through the 1980s. The most interesting elements, however, consist of video recordings of Szukalski himself which Bray made and preserved. These are worth watching for many reasons, one of them being to observe Szukalski’s arrogance and charm co-existing simultaneously in the same place. Anyone who encountered Szukalski no doubt experienced approach-avoidance conflict. Szukalski may possibly have been wrong about some things but, if Struggle is to be believed, he was never in doubt.

The takeaway from Struggle — and it really rubs your nose into it, however unintentionally — is that real artists, and really, really good artists, don’t always succeed. They never, however, stop creating. You may not reach the heights of a James Patterson, Ernest Hemingway or Nora Roberts, but if you have a story to tell you need to — you must — keep trying to tell it. So endeth the lesson.

To take Jordan Dane’s excellent question of yesterday — what book first inspired you to write — a step further, please tell us: who or what motivates you to continue to create even as success might remain elusive?

(All photographs and illustrations are (c) The Estate of Stanislaw Szukalski. All rights reserved.)