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: DESCENDING DARKNESS

Photo courtesy Filip Gielda on unspash.com

Please join me in welcoming Anonymous du jour to the semi-regular revolving feature of The Kill Zone known as First Page Critique! Today we will be looking at the first page of Anon’s Descending Darkness, a work-in-progress tale of a lost love and the potential for revenge:

Descending Darkness  

The man stood on the outskirts of Vista Bay looking down at the town that took his wife. The woods would hide him for now. Anger roiled in his heart as the memories of what the town had done to him and his wife flooded through his mind. If he had a match, he would have burnt the town with a single strike. Or died trying.

He stood there, seething, the wind bringing tears to his eyes. The town below getting blurry. He pulled his coat closer to his chest and inhaled the cold air. Then, from the lake below, a white cloud billowed over the land. Snow, and lots of it.

He was miles from his abandoned car, thinking that he would end it all. Now the town gave him something to think about.

The snow blew harder against him. He had to get out of it. Sure, he wanted to die but he didn’t want to freeze to death—that would be a slow death not worthy his pain.

The snow cleared his mind and the desire to die evaporated. Revenge. He turned back toward his car.

An hour later, his feet numb and his hands feeling like cold stone, he admitted he was lost. It wasn’t fair, the town owed him. He pushed his way through the trees.

Bent forward against the blowing snow, he climbed another hill only to be blinded again by the blowing whiteness as he reached the top. He shielded his eyes and surveyed the expanse of white and trees and prayed. He did not know to whom he was praying but only that he asked for protection until full retribution was made. He lifted his arm to shield his face from the frozen torrent then fell onto the cold snow.

The lowering sun mocked by producing no heat, only bright light threatening to blind him. He was going to die. He squinted into the distance and for the first time, he saw it. Hope. A cave lay ahead. He thanked whoever had answered his prayer and pressed onward.

Anon, you have a potentially interesting story here and do a good job of teasing your audience into it. That said, Descending Darkness needs a bit of work. Please note: what I have looks like a lot, but it really isn’t. It amounts to minor corrections here and there. Accordingly, please don’t be intimidated by the length and number of corrections.

— First, name your protagonist.  For our purposes we are going to call name “William.” We can identify a bit more with William if we call him by a proper name rather than “The man.” Let’s name his wife as well. How does “Mary” sound, just for this exercise?

— Next, I’m a little confused about the visual perspective which you present. You’ve got William looking down — your word — at a town (and let’s name that town, too. How about if we call it “Fairlawn” for our purposes?) as he stands on the outskirts of Vista Bay. Since water seeks it lowest level (ask those poor folks in New Orleans) let’s keep William just outside of the woods which are above the town but put Vista Bay (and any other body of water) next to or (preferably) below Fairlawn.

— Let’s follow up with your description of the weather. I don’t observe Elmore Leonard’s rule of writing that forbids talking about weather at the beginning of your story. You, however, go the other way just a bit too much. You use the word “snow” five times and the term “cold” three times in one page. Mention that it’s cold and that it’s snowing once and focus the attention of the reader on what is going through William’s mind. If you want to sustain the idea of how cold it is you can do that by mentioning that he’s leaving tracks or talk about his car skidding on ice and getting stuck or something (see below for more about that car). Your reader will get the picture. You also use the words “death” twice in one sentence and “die” four times in one page, not to mention in two consecutive sentences.  Try “passing on” or another phrase or euphemism for “die” or death instead. You’re not the only one who uses a word too frequently in too short a space. It’s one of my cardinal sins in my own writing and one I strive mightily to avoid.

— Speaking of cold: in the last paragraph you describe the sun as “producing no heat.”  The sun is always producing heat; it’s just not helping William at this particular time of year. Try this: “The setting sun mocked him. It provided no heat, only bright light threatening to blind him.”

— As far as that car is concerned, I’m wondering why William parked it and then walked for a while if he was going to commit suicide. There are all sorts of reasons for that but tell us one. Did he run out of road? Did he get stuck in the snow? Run out of gas? Get a flat tire? Tell us. I think that you probably want William out of that car and walking so that he can find something in that cave in the middle of that snowstorm, but tell us why he left his car behind so that we’re not wondering about it.

— The next comment may just relate to your style. You seem in a couple of places to separate two complete sentences with commas and set off incomplete sentences with periods, to wit:

If he had a match, he would have burnt the town with a single strike. Or died trying.

Instead of:  “If he had a match, he would have burnt the town with a single strike, or died trying.”

It wasn’t fair, the town owed him.

instead of: “ It wasn’t fair. The town owed him.”

What you’re doing isn’t grammatically correct, but it’s a style that a number of authors utilize. I don’t particularly like it but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it. Reasonable minds may differ.

It doesn’t always work, however:

He stood there, seething, the wind bringing tears to his eyes. The town below getting blurry.

 

Let’s sharpen that up just a bit by making the second sentence a complete one:

“He stood there, seething, the wind bringing tears to his eyes. The town below blurred.”

Then we have:

The snow cleared his mind and the desire to die evaporated. Revenge. He turned back toward his car.

There’s just a bit of a jump between wanting to die and revenge, from a narrative standpoint. How about building a small bridge between them? For instance:

“The snow cleared William’s mind. His desire to die evaporated and was replaced by revenge. He turned back toward his car.”

— I’ve got two more items for you, Anon. Be careful of the placement of the word “only.” To wit:

He did not know to whom he was praying but only that he asked for protection until full retribution was made.

What you are saying is that William only knew that he was asking for protection. I think what you meant was that William was asking only for protection, which would look like this:

“He did not know to whom he was praying but asked only for protection until full retribution was made.”

…and while we’re at it, that second clause is a little awkward. Retribution is achieved, not made. How ’bout we change that to

…until he had achieved retribution.

I will now attempt to stay uncharacteristically quiet (though still present) as I open up the floor to our TKZers. Anon, thank you for contributing and braving the First Page Critique. I look forward to at some point discovering what the town (whatever you should name it) did to deserve the man’s (whatever you should name him) enmity, and what occurs.

 

 

 

 

2+

Playing It by Ear

Photo by Dragne Marius courtesy unsplash.com

I am going to be uncharacteristically brief today. I experienced two weeks ago the return of what seems to be a chronic viral ear infection which causes me 1) occasional balance problems 2) frequent hearing difficulties and 3) sudden sharp pains in my left ear. With regard to 3), I thought that the etiology might be my guardian angel jabbing me when I had impure thoughts, but then I realized that a) I would be getting jabbed every thirty seconds and b) it still wouldn’t stop me. I’m accordingly chalking the pain up to the physical problem. I get along just fine, except for having occasional periods when I can’t drive; difficulty listening to music; and perceptual difficulties. I call myself GE: sixty “whats” per conversation.

All of this will go away eventually (and, alas, return) as it has in the past, but the problem is that my concentration is shot at the moment. I as a result don’t really have a topic to write about today. I am accordingly asking you, our loyal TKZers who visit us (and me every other Saturday): what would you like us at TKZ to write about? You can name more than one topic. I just ask that you be specific as possible. We try to cover a wide range of things here but there is always a chance that we’re missing something that folks would like to read about and then discuss. I can’t guarantee that one of us will cover something that you mention, but we’ll certainly think about it. Let us know. Thank you for filling the void today.

5+

FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE: Cabal in Catalonia

Good Saturday to you! Please join me in welcoming Anon du jour, who has bravely and graciously submitted the introduction of his work in progress to The Kill Zone movable feast known as the First Page Critique. Anon, let it roll with the first page of Cabal in Catalonia:

 

JFK International Airport, Terminal 8.

Standing at an empty Gate 2 watching my ten-day getaway to Barcelona, get away without me, and I can’t remember being this happy getting kicked off a plane.

It has nothing to do with my girlfriend Ebba, who’s working the flight and probably, demonstrating the operational intricacies of a seat belt to 200 dull-eyed passengers right about now. It does, however, have everything to do with Monica Reyes, a green-eyed beauty with a mop of fiery red waiting for me at Drink, a little martini bar just a few steps away. Only she doesn’t know I’m coming or even that she’s waiting for me.

Only a few of the dozen tiny round tables are occupied when I walk in and find her perched on a barstool with a cell phone pressed to her ear. Her face lights up when she notices me and ends her call with, “speak of the devil. Gotta go now. Okay. I will. See you in Barcelona.”

“Is this seat taken Miss?” I ask nodding to the empty next to her.

“I’m sorry it’s reserved for Mister Tucker Blue. That wouldn’t be you, would it?”

“It would indeed.”

“Then by all means,” she smiles. “So what happened? I thought you were on?”

“I was, and I waited for you to show and when you never did, I had no choice but to sneak off the plane.”

“So you got bumped, huh?”

“Yep, my lucky day I guess,” and meant it. “Can I buy you a drink?”

Her cell phone rings. She plucks it from her purse and checking the display says in afterthought, “I’m good thanks,” then stands and turns to take the call.

Swiveling to the bartender, I order a, “Glenfiddich on rocks with a splash please,” and turn to examine her from behind. Tall, five-nine maybe? Ten? A curvy slim with nice calves. The broad shoulders and strong back say athletic, not masculine. Au contraire. This woman’s totally feminine, either that or she’s the most impossible Danish Girl. Probably plays tennis, at the club, and . . . Check out the neck. Long and slender, a runway of creamy white. I can already feel the warmth nuzzling my way in there.

Jesus, you’d think I was sizing up a cow for market.

A minute passes, and she’s still talking.

Two minutes. Giggling now.

Anon, I hope what follows doesn’t sound like I’m picking on you. Your first page, however, is dead on arrival due to the death of a thousand cuts. All of them are self-inflicted.

You have three primary problems which you repeat throughout the work. The first is with punctuation. Specifically, you engage in the overuse and improper use of commas. Many are guilty of this (including me, me, and me) but your errors are excessive. You seem as a general rule (though not always) to have inserted commas where you don’t need them (after “Barcelona” and after “probably” at the beginning of your work) and not including them where you do (before “splash” and after “please” near the bottom of the page. There are many more. You can find a quick guide here that will help you with this problem. Overuse breaks up the flow of your story at best and makes the it confusing at worst.

 

The second problem falls under the general heading of grammar. Let’s again look with your first sentence:

Standing at an empty Gate 2 watching my ten-day getaway to Barcelona, get away without me, and I can’t remember being this happy getting kicked off a plane.

  1. Standing? Who is standing? Tell us right away, since the story is just starting: “I’m standing at an empty Gate 2…
  2. According to Tucker Blue, your narrator, he is watching his ten-day getaway to Barcelona get away. No. He’s watching the plane take off without him. I take his point — he’s missing his flight to Barcelona — but it’s awkwardly stated. Is it because you wanted to use that “get away” and “getaway” contrast, Anon? I liked it too, but use it elsewhere, such as in your conversation with Monica.
  3. The sentence is very long. It’s too long. There are what we call “run-on sentences” here.

Let’s see what happens when we clean this up a bit. Oh, and since Tucker is using the first person present, let him tell us where he is, rather than the heading:

I’m  standing at an empty Gate Two at JFK’s Terminal 8, watching my flight take off.  There goes my ten-day getaway to Barcelona. I got kicked off of the plane and couldn’t be happier.”

This takes one long sentence that’s needlessly confusing and chops it into three short(er) sentences. 

There’s more. You describe Monica Reyes as having a “fiery mop.”  This brought to mind the image of a custodian wildly swinging a flaming mop around the lounge, causing the occupants of the bar tables scattering for their lives. Do you think Monica would like her hair described as a “mop?” A “thick mass of ginger hair” or another term might work better.

Then we come to:

Only she doesn’t know I’m coming or even that she’s waiting for me.

Only a few of the dozen tiny round tables are occupied when I walk in and find her perched on a barstool with a cell phone pressed to her ear.

You also begin consecutive sentences with the word “only.” It’s repetitive and really isn’t necessary. Take them BOTH out. Let’s also correct that run-on sentence, too:

She doesn’t know I’m coming or even that she’s waiting for me.

A few of the dozen tiny round tables are occupied when I walk in. She’s perched on a barstool with a cell phone pressed to her ear.

There are some other problems of a similar nature. I’m just going to name two. When you’ve got more than one person in the scene you should name who you’re dealing with so that we know for sure that Tucker is “examining” Monica, and not the bartender, from behind, to give but one example. Also… “examining” sounds clinical. How about “checking out”or “take a quick look” instead? Examining is what doctors do.

The third problem is story consistency. This drove me crazy, Anon, to the point where I didn’t want to read any further. Even if you plan to resolve inconsistencies in the story’s future, you are confusing your readers in the present:

— Tucker tells us that Monica doesn’t know that Tucker is coming and isn’t even waiting for him. Why, then, does she ask if he’s Tucker Blue and tell him that the seat is reserved for him? She obviously knows he’s coming if she has reserved a seat for him. If she’s flirting with him you need to indicate that, Anon. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense.

— Tucker initially tells us that he was going to Barcelona but was  kicked off of  the flight. He tells Monica that he snuck off. If that’s an error, fix it to reflect that he was either kicked off or snuck off.  If Tucker is lying to Monica, he should indicate that to us, as in “Yep,” I lie. “My lucky day I guess.”

There are other errors in all of the three categories. I could go on. Instead, Anon, I recommend that you 1) find a good book on grammar basics and study it carefully; 2) check out that website I linked to concerning comma use;  3) look for internal inconsistencies in your story; and 4) slowly read your story aloud to hear how it sounds. If it sounds awkward or wrong, it is probably reading the same way. I am not trying to discourage you, Anon. It’s just that your story needs a lot of work if you’re hoping to get published by an editor and read by the public. Good luck to you. I wish you the best.  

I will now attempt to stay uncharacteristically quiet while I hand the forum over to my fellow TKZers. Thank you!

 

 

 

2+

Getting to Z Street

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unspash

My younger daughter Annalisa during her third year of life started talking about “Z Street.” We had no idea what she was talking about, but it was nonetheless interesting. There were apparently all sorts of things and many different stores on Z Street. Most of her sentences began with “On Z Street, there is…” or “On Z Street, they have…”. I asked her late on one afternoon if she knew where Z Steet was. She answered, “Sure!” I said, “Okay. Show me.” We jumped in the car and a couple of minutes later we were on the road while Annalisa eerily prefigured a talking GPS unit, telling me, with steadily decreasing confidence, to turn right at the next light, then left at the next corner and so on and so forth. We ultimately arrived behind a shopping center where we found ourselves parked by a couple of dumpsters and several stacks of palettes behind a Kroger. “So this is it?” I asked. Annalisa told me yes, with some hesitation. It was all good. Z Street had a Jersey Mike’s nearby, and the Hartlaub family had a fine meal to top off the journey. Annalisa, for her part, never mentioned Z Street again, opting instead to talk about her “owl friend.” 

More on the owl friend in a bit. Annalisa’s directions to Z Street were a terrific example of the writing process known as “pantsing.” She had a concept in her head which told her what Z Street was but really no idea of how to get there.  She comes by this honestly. I am horrible at outlining, which in part is why in my longer work I more often than not found myself…well, sitting at the rump end of someplace and looking at the mental equivalence of pallets and dumpsters. This isn’t the case with every author, of course. James Lee Burke reportedly has no idea about what his next book is going to be about until he starts writing, yet he arguably writes better than anyone. I don’t think that Cormac McCarthy outlines either. Jeffery Deaver, however, outlines obsessively, spending as much time outlining as he does writing the novel, year in and year out. It certainly has held him in wonderful stead.

I had an epiphany a few weeks ago about all of this when I suddenly realized how to get over a roadblock in a novel I’ve been working on for a bit now. Part of the epiphany included the unfortunate realization that the roadblock didn’t just suddenly appear in the story. I had, at some earlier point in the narrative, snuck ahead and built it without realizing it and without building a reasonable detour around it. I could have solved all of that by outlining, but let’s not forget…(cue up the chorus)… “I am horrible at outlining.”

What I want to report — to share with you — is that I worked my way around it. I thought about Z Street, and how I travel. I drive everywhere, and don’t like getting lost, so I map out my journey. I check hotel prices and distances and gas stations and how far it is between Cracker Barrels and Sonics and how long it’s going to take me to get where I’m going. Oh, and speed traps. I check for speed traps. Some folks use AAA, but I do it myself. The realization hit me: what is outlining, if it isn’t a self-made Triptik, or map, for writers?

I’m outlining now. What I do more resembles a map than an outline like you might use, but it’s getting me there. And if I want to pull away from what I have outlined and take a scenic diversion, why, that’s okay too. It’s my trip. I hope to tell you about it sooner rather than later.

I have one more thing, in case some of you are wondering about “the owl friend.” It became a constant source of reference for Annalisa. Accordingly, while on a family vacation in New Orleans a few months later, we were in the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and walked into the aviary. “Look, Annalisa,” I said, point up toward the top of a sloping rock wall, at a wise old bird sitting quietly on a ledge. “Is that your owl friend?” Annalisa immediately detached herself from me and started scampering up the wall on all fours. She almost got away from me on that one. The owl reacted by peering imperiously down at us, as if to say, “Whaddya want from me?” I of course had no answer, nor did Annalisa when I asked her, “So. What would you have done with him when you got him?”

Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Are you outlining your story/Great American Novel? How are you doing it? In the traditional manner, like Jim Bell learned (and I didn’t) in Catholic school? With post it notes on a giant bulletin board (Yo! P.J. Parrish!) As if it is a map? Or some other way? Please share.

 

 

7+

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.

 

5+

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.

 

 

 

14+

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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