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.

Inspired by a Good Deed


Photo courtesy www.clipartxtras.com

I write this while taking a break from an interesting if long-delayed project. I have a bed in the basement which has been buried by boxes which have accumulated over the past twenty-four years. The bed is suddenly needed the boxes need to be moved, the contents examined, and determinations made with respect to keeping or disposing of the contents. I have been working on this at the rate of one box per hour, with fifteen minutes allocated for each box. The fifteen minutes is broken down as follows: 1) kick box to dislodge spiders hiding within — ten minutes; 2) carry box upstairs — thirty seconds; 3) go through contents of box — four minutes thirty seconds. I’ve made great progress but it’s been somewhat depressing in a way.

You might be surprised to learn that many of the boxes contained books. I don’t remember reading a lot of them, and it’s depressing on a number of levels. The primary one is that there were and are a LOT of books out there. Many of this lot were published before there was such a thing as Facebook or Twitter, so that the author could not instantaneously announce to the world when the book would be published, when the book was published, when the book was reviewed, and so one. One had to rely on email. I have no idea what an author did before that, other than to hope that a kindly clerk at Walden’s or a knowledgeable librarian would recommend their book to a prospective reader. Still…look at all the darn books. One might ask oneself, “Why bother writing? All the stories have been told.”

The answer is that if you have a story, write it. A good story stands on its own. People empathize with it. One can also take the basics of it and work it, maybe twist it around a bit, and make it different.

It may also surprise you that I have an example. Let’s start with a bit of backstory.  I misspent my formative high school and college years in Akron, Ohio. One of the few good parts of that experience was making friends in high school with a guy named Michael Trecaso. Michael combined restaurant experience with an innate ability to squeeze a nickel until the buffalo screams to succeed in a very tough business. He bought an ice cream parlor named Mary Coyle — it was where he worked when we were in high school — and turned it from a popular neighborhood place in the Highland Square neighborhood into a destination restaurant.

Photo courtesy Michael Trecaso’s Mary Coyle Restaurant

Another good part of growing up in Akron for me was making friends with a guy we will call P. I have been friends with him for almost as long as I have been friends with Michael. P. is an antique dealer in Akron, which means that he gets to meet a lot of people and hear a lot of stories. Keep in mind that people who live in Akron tend to stay in Akron. Each resident is at best two or three degrees of separation from another. So it is that on one recent afternoon P. was speaking with a husband and wife in their eighties about who they knew, and what had changed in the city. The husband mentioned Mary Coyle. P. mentioned that a friend of his (that would be me) knew the owner. The wife said, “Oh,  Michael Trecaso is the nicest man.” She then told P. a story.

The lady’s father — who we will call F. and who is now deceased — had some fifteen years previously been living in an elder care residence in downtown Akron. One day he caught a bus which took him to a doctor’s appointment near Highland Square. When he finished with the poking, prodding, and sticking he went outside to discover that the perfect summer day that had been present on his trip there had been chased off by storm clouds. It began raining in torrents as he crossed the street to the bus stop, which was located in front of Mary Coyle.

F. had been standing in the downpour for two minutes when he heard someone calling to him. He turned around and the owner of the restaurant — Michael Trecaso as described above — was beckoning to him, calling, “Come stand in the doorway! You’ll get soaked!” F did so. Michael said, “What are you doing out there?” F. said, “Waiting for the bus.” Mike asked F. where he was going. F told him. Michael looked at F. for a second, came to some internal decision, and walked over to the counter. He wrote “Back in thirty minutes” on a sheet of notebook paper and taped it to the front door. Michael then told F “Come on” and gave F. a ride to his residence. F. never forgot that. Neither did his daughter, who tells everyone she meets about it. Michael has told me a lot of stories, but he never told me that one. I don’t think he’s told anyone that story, actually. It would ruin his reputation. I am accordingly telling it now.

You can do a lot with that tale. If you’re Linwood Barclay, your protagonist in a small city could do the good deed and go back to work, only to have the police show up three days later inquiring as to the whereabouts of the elderly man who was last seen getting into his car. If you’re Paula Hawkins, your protagonist sees her long-absent daughter/sister/husband while she is giving an elderly woman with dementia a ride. And so on. That’s just one story. The woods are full of them. Don’t let my tale of a basement full of books discourage you.

I also must note that doing a good deed is its own reward. Should you be in Akron, however, please stop by Mary Coyle at 780 West Market Street to say hello to Michael and give his establishment your patronage. Should you do so, tell him to report to your office or ask him what school he is going to next week. He’ll know who sent you.  

Photo courtesy Michael Trecaso’s Mary Coyle Restaurant

Now…if you are so inclined, I would love to hear about a spontaneous good deed that you or someone you know performed and that has heretofore gone unremarked. We’ll remark upon it. Thank you.




First Page Critique: Into the past with DEATH KNELL

Photo: “Tree Tunnel” by Gaurang Alat, courtesy unsplash.com

Good morning, and let’s give a hound-dog howdy to Anon du jour, who has gathered up a seemingly endless supply of courage and submitted the first page of work-in-progress DEATH KNELL for our collective consideration!

Title:  Death Knell

Chapter One: The Visitor

   No one is ever who they appear to be.  Peter Templeton had this thought as he stepped out of his car and looked up into the crimson blanket that covered the evening sky.  It was a gorgeous sunset and cast a glow over his entire neighborhood. Another perfect ending to another perfect day in his now perfect life, he thought.                 

   Across the street, neighborhood children scattered and laughed.  He watched the children play for a minute and smiled. Two years ago, he sat in a small cubicle and knew it would be his grave.   Now, he was living in a world where children played on well-manicured lawns, driveways were lined with vehicles named Cadillac, Lexus and BMW, and people spoke to each other across wooden fences.  He shook his head and smiled again.

   As if on cue, a silver Mercedes drove up the driveway next door.  The driver honked two short bursts and waved as he got out. That was Simon, Peter’s neighbor and financial planner.  Simon sat in a different type of cubicle and helped old people enjoy their final days. By the look on his face, he enjoyed it as much as anyone.

   Peter waved back and thought his life in a different cubicle.  He didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as Simon did. He hated every minute of it.  When he was younger, Peter thought heartbreak and pain were the worst things he would ever experience.  But he was wrong. Boredom, he discovered then, was a whole new kind of hell. It was a living hell where you lived the same day over and over and over again.  A hell where the seconds felt like minutes, the minutes felt like hours, and the hours felt like days. A hell where you prayed for death to end the boredom. But those prayers were never answered.  They didn’t even give you the freedom to kill yourself back then. Time was the only thing he was allowed to kill.

   He looked over the lawns and thought about what a difference a few years can make.  Back then, he just existed. He was a zero then. A nobody. He was a murderer in the eyes of the law and a criminal to everyone else.  He was a loser waiting to die. And he knew the world would be a better place without him.

   Then his salvation came out of nowhere.  It pulled him from his hell and dropped him in the middle of this quiet, calm and gorgeous neighborhood.  It removed all of the failures in his life like a strong tide and cleansed them in a sea of normal society.  Gone were all the wasted dreams, lost loves, and poor decisions. Now, he was really living. He was a winner now.  And God-damn it, he loved every second of it.

   Peter took a deep breath and looked down the street again.  Tree branches made a canopy over the road. For a second, it reminded him of the tropical leaves on the island.  They formed a natural ceiling and made the island feel like a great cathedral. He looked around again and took another deep breath.  There were many funerals in that cathedral and he witnessed too many of them. He didn’t miss that at all.


Anon, you’ve got an interesting setup here. It sounds as if Peter is a guy who has taken the opportunity to reinvent himself and has done so to his satisfaction. You’re hinting just enough to bait the hook in the reader’s interest and sink it. I have the feeling that Peter’s past is going to come knocking on his door and I would love to be there when it does. You’ve got the substance down. Let’s work on the form of your project just a bit to get it ready for publishing.

— Let’s begin with a little housekeeping. The color of the text in your submission went from blue to black about halfway through it.  I’m not sure if the problem was on your end, mine or somewhere in between, but please check that on your manuscript before you send it off an agent. Your text color can be any color you like so long as it is black unless your target tells you otherwise. You also want to proofread a bit more carefully. For one example, you state in the fourth paragraph that  

Peter waved back and thought his life in a different cubicle.

You left out the word “about” or “of” between “thought” and “his.” I do this so often in my own writing when my fingers are flying faster than my brain, that I am embarrassed to the extent that I might have a tee shirt created that states “I BEAT GRAMMARLY!” A proofreader (either you or someone else) will hold you in good stead.

— With that out of the way, let’s look take a look at Peter’s interior monologue. Your story is told in the third person past tense, so we want to have a clear delineation between what Peter is directly thinking and what our omnipresent narrator is telling us. You can do this by setting Peter’s thoughts off in italics when you want to tell us what he is thinking. You can say “he thought” once in a while but if you use it once early on with the thought italicized your readers (particularly TKZ readers, who are among the most intelligent on the planet!) will get the idea. You can remind them every once in a while but using “he thought” too frequently will become as boring as “he said.” Also, please note that if Peter is engaging in an internal monologue he is going to be thinking about “my” rather than “his” now perfect life. Let’s see how that will look in your first paragraph:

No one is ever who they appear to be, Peter Templeton thought as he stepped out of his car and looked up into the crimson blanket that covered the evening sky.  It was a gorgeous sunset and cast a glow over his entire neighborhood. Another perfect ending to another perfect day in my now perfect life.

— I also got a little distracted by your use of tenses. I noted earlier that Death Knell is told in the past tense. That’s all well and good. We understand that all of the events in the book took place in the past. You need, however, to distinguish between the “past,” which is when your primary narrative occurs, and the “remote past,” which occurs before your main narrative. We use the “past perfect” tense for this. The “past perfect” tense is formed by taking the past tense of “to have” (which is “had) and combining it with the past participle of the verb you are using. It’s easier than it sounds. Here is what happens when we utilize it in the fourth paragraph of Death Knell, where Peter begins to really rock ‘n’ roll about the past and about how things are much better today:

Back then, he had just existed. He had been a zero then. 


He had been a murderer in the eyes of the law and a criminal to everyone else.  He had been a loser waiting to die. And he had known the world…

It makes for easier reading, given that the reader doesn’t have to sort out the past and the remote past, as you, the author has already done it for them. Which brings us to the next thing on the list:

— Your writing style is just a bit repetitive in spots, Anon. You have a slight tendency to use the same words in close proximity to each other and to repeat what you have already stated or indicated. You are hardly alone in overwriting. I’m in that very large room with you. So is Charles Dickens. The late Harlan Ellison, in his column The Glass Teat, did a short but hilarious sendup of Dickens and the seemingly endless repetition of Tiny Tim’s classic line “God Bless us, every one!” in A Christmas Carol. To correct this,  read through your work and if you are describing the same thing over and over, or using the same word more than once in a paragraph, get rid of it and use a synonym.

Let’s look at that fourth paragraph again, where with a snip here and a clip there we can move things along just a bit faster by reducing the use of the phrase “He was”:

Back then, he had just existed. He had been a zero then, a murderer in the eyes of the law, a criminal to everyone else, and a loser waiting to die.  He had known the world…

That’s all I got, Anon. In the interest of brevity (…) I tried to focus on the broad picture and give an example or two rather than to go through and pick out each and every potential error. I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet while I give our wonderful readers a turn at commenting on your work. I sincerely hope, Anon, that you keep plugging away so that we can see the rest of Death Knell at some point in the future. And thank you for submitting to First Page Critique!














Your story is told in the past tense.  All of the events described took place in the past. The problem arises when you have to distinguish between events which took place in the past in your main narrative — and events which took place even further in the past. That’s where the past perfect comes in. It’s easy enough to use



— Peter waved back and thought about his life in a different cubicle.




…for the repose of the soul…

Photo courtesy Eberhard Grossgasteiger through unsplash.com

Fair warning: this is going to be a very dark and sad post. You might want to go elsewhere, to a place where quiet is disturbed only by laughter and where there is no fear or bad endings instead of reading what follows.

I am blessed with living on a very nice street in a very nice neighborhood. What little crime occurs here tends to be transitory. Maybe the police will stop an intoxicated driver or there will be a bit of vandalism or a fight at one of the schools. It’s generally boring, and that’s how we like it.

I received a telephone call from D, my good friend and former brother-in-law, on Monday, June 4 at about 7:35PM. D lives one street over from me. He has worked in law enforcement and has a friend on our local police force. D seemed hesitant at first when I answered. “Um, Joe,” he said, “You didn’t, uh, just kill (your wife) did you?” I assured him that I had not. He told me that his policeman friend had called him a few moments before and told him that there had been a murder on my street involving a married couple. I went outside to find the house across and five up from mine surrounded by police cars. The short version of what was gradually revealed is that the husband (J) and wife (D) who lived there had been having marital problems and had separated in anticipation of a divorce, with the husband living elsewhere but occasionally visiting his wife. According to witnesses, J on the day in question had been at the house but was seen exiting with blood on his hands and confessed to his brother via telephone and to a neighbor in person to killing D. J then got in his car and left. The neighbor went over to the house and looked in the front window, saw D’s body, and called 911. J was quickly apprehended and arrested. He is currently in custody as the justice system moves forward.

J and D were what I would call “waving” neighbors. I had two conversations with J in twenty years, both occasioned by our shared backgrounds — we both misspent our formative years in the Cleveland area — but were not what anyone would call close. I saw and talked with D more, but not much more, and our conversations were short and hardly substantive. I do remember feeling bad for her a few years ago when J set up what was supposed to be a celebratory birthday display for D on their front yard.  I am not lacking a sense of humor, and such has often been characterized, not inaccurately, by people who know me as extremely inappropriate. I felt so bad for D about what was in their yard, however, that I had to restrain myself from tearing it down. I can’t imagine that D’s birthday was happy that year. I am further unable, as more official information trickles out concerning what allegedly occurred last week, to remotely imagine what D’s last minutes were like.

The damage that was inflicted upon D during her last minutes on earth — as indicated by the charges against J, which I won’t get into here — and which resulted in her death radiates far beyond the house where she and J lived and raised a family. They have three adult children, two of whom are engaged to be married, with all living out of state. Losing both parents at once in very different ways will undoubtedly leave a mark. Worse, to my mind, is that D’s mother is still with us. Parents usually go ahead of their children and the passing while tragic is the normal order of things. The death of a child at any age before a parent is not something, I would think, from which one could ever recover. I can’t imagine what she is going through or will face.

A number of automobiles have driven down the street at regular intervals since D’s murder, negotiating the cul-de-sac where my house rests before making their way back up toward what they no doubt regard as the murder house. Neighbors have been taking care of the yard, but I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to live there again. How dreadful is that place. I struggle daily — hourly — with my faith, but when I drive by that house the words of a prayer that I haven’t said in decades rise up unbidden inside me. I hope that they do some good, somewhere, somehow:


…may her soul and all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.




Communicating from Beyond the Grave

Photo courtesy sommi, unsplash.com

I recently had what I’ll call an “episode” which caused me to pause and remind myself of my mortality. The circumstances aren’t important here other than to note that my immediate thought at the time was, “I don’t want to go out like that!” I did begin thinking, however, about what would occur if I suddenly found myself standing before the ultimate throne of judgment and the potential mess I would leave behind, and I’m not just talking about the collection of music and reading material I have. I’m referring to things left unpublished and unsaid, which would include both words most tender and the slings and arrows which the French refer to as l’esprit d’escalier.

There are also footprints through cyberspace to consider. Most of us have anywhere from one to a couple of hundred passwords for various things from email accounts and insurance policies to online collections of pornog…er, erotica and everything in between. I’ve seen those adorable little notebooks with the legend “Password Keeper” on the covers in gold and bold letters, created for the purpose of letting the owner mark down each and every one of their online passwords but which make it easy for whoever picks their pocket or grabs their carry-about to access their life and fortune. You don’t want one of those. You want something a little more secure. Many of you probably have a LastPass account which functions like the memory of a twenty-two-year-old who has never sampled drugs or alcohol and which will let you access whatever whenever you need it (though God help you if you forget the magic twanger for your LastPass account itself). At some point, your significant someone may need to access all of those passwords, including “iwant2writelikeJSB!” for Google Drive or “eyehaveAsecretcrush0n(initials deleted)” for your photos in your cloud storage. Then there are all of those works in progress on which you’ve been working progressively, including the masterpiece that you finished just before that one hundred plus percent blockage of the left anterior descending coronary artery that’s been manifesting itself as that numbness in your left arm which you’ve been 1) ignoring or 2) attributing to epicondylitis for the last six weeks suddenly decides to turn off the tap.  Wouldn’t it be nice, don’t you think, to have something that would store everything from your passwords to your documents for your spouse, successor, agent, administrator, and/or beneficiary might need and get it to each and all without worrying about a court order to open your safe deposit box, or to cause a scavenger hunt through a bunch of file boxes? Here’s something else. Rather than inconvenience everyone by forcing them to attend a funeral service (or to manufacture an excuse to be absent) wouldn’t it be better to record pre-morbid messages telling folks exactly what they meant to you and which would be sent to them after your death, since we know not the date, place or the hour?

There are, interestingly enough, a number of websites that will do just that. I had never heard anyone mention such a thing until a day or two ago, but such services have been around since 2012, which is a technological eternity ago. I don’t get out much, but you would think that because I don’t get out much I would know about this. That said, there are quite a few of them, and the services offered differ from site to site, as do the cost (though many are free). What they basically offer, however, is an ability to provide delivery of online documents, lists, and multiple media files to a person or persons of your choosing. You deposit the files electronically and provide the site/service with the emails of the people to whom you want to be able to access the files. There’s a dead man’s switch (and yes, there is an app available by that name) attached to some of the services which, if you don’t check in at regularly designated intervals to demonstrate that you are not on tour with the Choir Invisible, will assume that you are dead and will then send a link to your files to your personal Max Brod. Others, when you do not check in, will query your most trusted friends (again, you supply the list) to make sure that you have really passed on (as opposed to drying out after the most recent Bouchercon). There is an incomplete list of such sites here but there are others with such warm and cheery names as ifidie.org and emailfromdeath.com that will get the job done as well.

I’m not endorsing any particular service here, having just become aware of them myself. It’s certainly something that I am going to explore, however, and not just as a tool for estate planning. This whole topic opens up a potentially rich new vein of story possibilities in what my bud Marcus Wynne calls the grammar mine. Here is one: someone receives an email correspondence from a long-estranged deceased friend which contains a cryptic video file showing a murder. I won’t ask you what yours might be, but please take a moment to check out one or more of the links and then tell us: would one of these services be of any particular benefit to you? Or does the paper file in the cabinet (or safe deposit box) work just fine for your purposes? Please let us know. And stay safe and healthy. As for me, I’m going to go write a final blog post as a goodbye. I hope it’s not needed for a long, long time.



Gone, but not forgotten…First Page Critique: REMINISCENCE

Photo courtesy marina4848 from pixabay.com

Welcome, Anon du jour, to yet another installment of First Page Critique. I’m a little hard on you today, but if you can make it through what follows I think you will ultimately be okay in the long run. Consider this your first day at Parris Island but remember that Myrtle Beach is only a few hours away! Let’s begin:


The piercing silence rang in my ears. My nerves rattled from a week of weeping. This wasn’t supposed to happen, not now but later, way later. I was never ready for this.

His smile shined at me every morning, embracing the life I hated for the past year. I struggled to keep my peace and appreciate every waking moment. It was hard to do knowing the certainty. I’d smile along with him, laughed at his jokes, it kindled a soft glow in my soul when it was dying.

At night, when I’m alone, tears wetted my pillow as I reminisced about the past. There was more good than the dreaded times. I’d taught him how to cook. He showed me I’m never alone. He promised me he’d be by my side with the rough and tough events in life that taunted me. Yes, he was there, comfort and content.

Oh, and he was strong, physically and mentally, supporting both our anguish and a wary eye for both of us. How sincere, sympathetic, and empathetic he was to this crisis in our lives. That was him, a man I wished we all could be. To think how the world would be if we all had that kindness in our hearts.

My hand shook out of control.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

I watched my hands tremble as I reached and opened the envelope. This time a tissue wasn’t enough for my cascading tears. The letter read . . .

The reminiscence of past times of laughter, sorrow, and the emotion that shot steam out of my ears, I could never forget, even if I tried. It was a crazy life with her, but I loved every minute spent with her. She was the soul that kept me motivated to succeed. She was my inspiration. She was my life. I will miss her, but the reminiscences will hold the torch burning in my heart for her. I am proud of her and proud to be a part of her life. ‘Live for it,’ she’d say, and I did, every day in my planner book, every night in my prayers. Thank you for nurturing me, giving me the strength to live as far into the future as I can. I will be your angel in heaven as you have been my angel on earth. I love you, mom.

Anon, you have two major problems right from the jump. The first is overwriting. The second is vagueness. You’re saying too much and too little at different times and at the wrong times.

Let’s start with the overwriting. You’re getting in your own way.  You start in the first paragraph, which is kind of like putting a speed bump just past an intersection.  “Piercing silence ringing”…no. Also…Nerves don’t “rattle” but they do get rattled. You might never be ready but in the past tense you should simply be not ready, not “never ready.” It doesn’t stop there, either. The third paragraph includes the sentence, “Yes, he was there, comfort and content.” I don’t know what that means. I think what you mean is “Yes, he was there, providing comfort and content.” The letter (see below) is also overwritten, with phrases such as “…shot steam out of my ears…” “torch burning in my heart for her…”  

Now we come to vagueness. I’m having trouble figuring out who the narrator is and who they are to the deceased. I think someone is deceased. Maybe they’re just gone. What I am getting is that someone important to the narrator has died. I am assuming it is a son. At one point the narrator says that the deceased is “a man I wished we all could be.” But then that letter the narrator is reading is addressed to “mom.” Let’s try to get the identities and relationship established in the first paragraph, just to keep the reader on firm ground. And that letter…I assume that the last paragraph is a letter, based on your sentence “The letter read…” but I’m not entirely sure.  If so, please italicize the letter to set it off so that we know it’s separate from the story narration.  

You might ask (and should) why any of this is important. The reason is that I had to read your first page a couple of times to even come close to understanding what you were getting at, Anon, other than the obvious manifestation of loss and resultant grief. That’s a problem. If you’re submitting your work to an agent, editor, or ultimately to a reader, they’ll need to see a first page that grabs them and makes them want to go for the second, the third, and the fourth page and beyond, all the way to the end, without having to try to figure out who is what. If someone is browsing for a book on Amazon or in a store, they normally read the jacket summary or the Amazon blurb and then if it’s of interest they’ll read the first page or two to see if it grabs them. If it doesn’t, they put that book down and pick up another until they find one that does. I happened across a terrific quote from Mickey Spillane, who said, “Nobody buys a mystery to get to the middle.” That’s true of any book. If you would like an excellent example of a book that picks you up from the first page and carries you through all the way to the end, take a look at the newly published novel HOW IT HAPPENED by Michael Koryta. You can get a sample of the Kindle edition easily enough. It starts with a strong first sentence and keeps things moving all the way through.  Actually, Anon, better yet, walk over to your bookshelf and pick up any novel that you call a favorite and read the first page. I bet that it still calls and sings to you, even after repeated readings. That’s what you want to aim for.

The short version of the above? Name the person who is so dearly missed early on, in the first paragraph. Establish the identity of the deceased with the narrator. Delete four out of every five adjectives, similes, and metaphors.

Let me if I may rewrite what you have written to give you an illustration of what I’m talking about:

I couldn’t get used to the silence. It took on a presence of its own the house. It made my home — what had been our home — sad and lonely. The quiet was an unwelcome and unwanted guest that had arrived uninvited before its time.

Mike’s passing was inevitable, as is everyone’s. His, however, was a violation of the unwritten law that a parent should predecease their child. His Bose mp3 SoundDock sat silently in his room but I still kept hearing one of his favorite songs, a Bob Dylan tune with a jaunty melody about wanting and not being born to lose someone. I didn’t want to listen but my memory didn’t have an “off” switch. We had supported and complemented each other, freely giving to and taking from each other according to our needs and abilities. Now it seemed as though half of me — my better half — was missing.

Mike near the end could not talk but he could still write. I found his last note to me a few days after he passed. The ink was tear-smeared by my frequent  readings, but I could still make out his words, even though my hands were trembling as I held the thin paper:

I’m not saying that what I’ve just done is the only way to write this, or the best way, or even a good way, but it’s a start. It establishes (or at least hints at) the identity of the narrator and the narrator’s relationship with the deceased. It names the deceased. It also removes some of the clutter.

The bottom line, Anon, is that you’re going to need to roll up your sleeves, hit the delete button, and start over. There is no sin or weakness in that. Everyone — and I mean everyone — overwrites and loses focus the first time(s) through. What you see when you pick up any work of art is the end of the journey through the thicket, a sojourn fraught with getting lost, cutting through brush, fighting off chiggers, spiders, and wasps, and enduring cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Sit down and have the Raid, bandages, Neosporin, maps, and machete at the ready.   Keep trying to get through that thicket again and again. Don’t hesitate to write, revise, and revisit repeatedly until it’s the absolute best it can be. And thank you for being brave enough to bare your soul to us and risk the criticism. I hope you accept it in the spirit in which it is offered.

As I post this, Anon, one of our past submitters, if you will to the First Page Critique process got ‘er done, if you will. Harald Johnson (he of “the boy in the canoe”) has just published 1609 https://www.amazon.com/New-York-1609-Harald-Johnson/dp/0692115250/.  Yes. You can do this.

I will now step back and strive mightily to remain uncharacteristically quiet while I open the floor to our wonderful visitors and commenters. Thank you all, and especially you, Anon, for contributing to our First Page Critique!


Not Before Breakfast

Photo by LisaRedfern courtesy pixabay.com

I am not sure if I am actually writing this or not.

You may not understand if you are one of the few people who has not seen the multiplex blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War. The plot basically involves a powerful being named Thanos — think Brock Lesnar in body paint — who (among other things) has to destroy part of the Universe in order to save it. This last gasp measure includes wiping out half of the people on Earth, which he is able to do with a snap of his fingers (I don’t like to do spoilers, but, like, that part of the plot is already out there, and everywhere). The Avengers attempt to stop him, and…anyway, there is a website that you can visit which will tell you whether you are still around or if you were vaporized when Thanos made like Bobby Darin in the interest of preserving all that is, or what is left of it. I checked and it seems that I was expendable and have joined the Hall of Heroes. Of course, no one really stays dead in the Marvel Universe forever so there is going to be some trick that turns things inside out and right side up to set things back to normal at some point down the road.  As for me, I feel like I’m still here, so it looks like I will be able to catch up on this season of Strike Back, keep watching Season Three of Billions, and, of particular importance, write my blog for today, procrastination notwithstanding.

All of this talking and viewing about death, however, got me thinking about mortality. The topic is often the subject of jokes. Abraham Lincoln’s last words, so the joke goes, were “You and your damn theatre tickets.” Bob Hope was asked on his deathbed whether he wanted to be cremated or buried. He reportedly answered, “Surprise me!” I also am fascinated by memento mori in picture form which seems to be a Pinterest topic of interest as well. I hadn’t really thought about the topic until several years ago when I attended a funeral where one of the (adult) grandchildren of the guest of honor was walking around snapping photographs. I was quietly aghast — most of the funerals I had previously been to had been held for Italian relatives and we just don’t do that — but I am sure that the photos will provide fodder for conversation several years and a generation or so down the road (“Who was that?”).

All of the above pales in comparison, however, to what I happened to find recently. I was researching how long a body stuck in a wall would continue to smell (you don’t want to know why I was wondering about that. Really. You don’t want to know) when I came across a term known as “coffin birth.” These don’t happen now (at least in the United States) but they were fairly prevalent here between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and around the world before then (and to some degree even now).  A coffin birth would occur when a woman who happened to be pregnant would die and be buried. Her body would later expel the corpse of her unborn child. Archeologists (make that “unlucky” archaeologists) have happened upon this phenomenon with semi-regularity. I find that to be the stuff of nightmare, for reasons I can articulate (but won’t) and for reasons that I can’t. The worst thing, however, is that it’s actually given me an idea for a story. I’m not sure that I want to go there — Poppy Z. Brite, I suspect, wouldn’t have hesitated — but I might.

My story notwithstanding…if horror is your game and you want to fashion something around that unfortunate occurrence, have at it. What I want to know from you, however, falls under the general heading of research. What is the most unusual fact — one that you were not looking for — that you’ve discovered online while researching something for your writing project entirely different? Don’t everybody answer at once. Thank you in advance.


Hang On! First Page Critique: MANNAHATTA

Photo Courtesy Pixabay

Welcome, Anon du jour!  Thank you for joining us this morning by submitting Mannahatta, your work in progress, to First Page Critique. I think you’re off to a great start with what I believe is an adventure novel. Let’s take a look, noting that the original line separation and paragraph breaks were lost in transmission:


Winter 1602

The two hunters could see it would not go well.

They sat on the high bank, bundled in skins and eating parched corn, while they watched the canoe approach from the west—from the island.

The rain had stopped, but the gale at their backs was still gusting. Whitecaps roiled the gray, cold waters below them, and there was a continuous roar from both wind and raging sea, not unlike a waterfall.

“Worst time to attempt this passage,” the taller of the two shouted in their Munsee dialect.

The other man grunted agreement while he chewed and pulled his beaver cloak tighter against the north wind.

The tide was turning at this spot they called Monatun, just east of Mannahatta. Here three salt rivers and waterways converged into one channel. Currents from different directions raced and collided. Waves rammed into each other and shot spray high in the air. Deep whirlpools spun and sucked, and a standing wave spanned the treacherous water route.

The hunters could do nothing to change what they knew was coming. They would be silent witnesses.

The man was in front, a woman in back, and in the middle a boy who had seen maybe eight or nine winters. The man paddled furiously and yelled instructions to his woman, eyes wide with fright. The boy remained motionless, as if in his dreaming world, his small hands grasping each side of the canoe.

As soon as they entered the violent stream, the paddler’s efforts had little effect—the canoe was pulled helplessly into the standing wave that blocked its path. The man tried to angle up and over the wave, but it was no good. The heavy canoe flipped like a small twig, its occupants launched into the icy water and swept along with the main current.

The wind then caught the lip of the canoe and sent it sailing against a large boulder that jutted out from the water. It broke into splinters with a loud crash.

The man and woman flailed and tried to swim to shore while being carried on by the chaotic flow. Soon, they disappeared under the water’s choppy surface.

The hunters’ attention went to the boy. He was not helpless like his parents. He was not fearful. He struggled in the water, but with a fixed determination.

He held a rope, and while he bobbed toward the jutting rock, they could see him purposefully . . .


First, last and in between: Anon, you know how to tell a story. Good going. You set a scene and create suspense very well. Even though I was almost certain from their first introduction that the adults were goners and that Sonny Boy was going to make it (and that’s not a sure thing yet) I was wondering how it was going to go down. I wasn’t disappointed at all with what you presented.

It looks like I have made a lot of corrections here. That is no reflection of your storytelling skills. Your work here reminds me in a way of Edgar Rice Burroughs, one of my all-time favorite authors of adventure fiction. He probably wouldn’t even get published now, as he was not a stickler for grammatical rules, but he could tell a story by just picking the reader up and carrying them along, the same as you do. I was swept up by your story which in my opinion matters more than writing a story that follows all the rules in the telling but bores the waste out the reader. Accordingly, please consider the following to be fine detailing rather than a general remodeling.

They sat on the high bank, bundled in skins and eating parched corn, while they watched the canoe approach from the west—from the island.  I’m thinking, Anon, that this would be a good place and time to hint that there are three people in the canoe. You can say:

They sat on the high bank, bundled in skins and eating parched corn, while watching the canoe with three people aboard approach from the west—from the island.

The hunters could do nothing to change what they knew was coming. They would be silent witnesses. Since they are already silent witnesses, let’s change the tense and also bring the canoe back into the action to introduce what happens next:

The hunters could do nothing to change what they knew was coming. They were silent witnesses as the surging waves tossed the canoe and its helpless passengers.  

The man was in front, a woman in back, and in the middle a boy who had seen maybe eight or nine winters. Let’s introduce them in a parallel fashion:

A man was in the front of the canoe,  a woman in the back, and a boy who had seen maybe eight or nine winters was in the middle.

The other man grunted agreement while he chewed and pulled his beaver cloak tighter against the north wind.  I knew what you were saying here, Anon, but the image lept into my mind, almost unbidden, of the gent chewing on his beaver cloak. Let’s maybe add two little words:

The other man grunted agreement while he chewed his corn and pulled his beaver cloak tighter against the north wind.

The man paddled furiously and yelled instructions to his woman, eyes wide with fright.

This story is told from the point of view of the hunters who have no way of knowing the relationship, 1602 style, between the man and the woman. It could be the guy’s sister. Let’s make the change from “his woman” to “the woman” until we know for sure if we ever do. Also, tell us whose eyes are wide with fright, Anon. If they’re the woman’s, use:

“…to the woman whose eyes were wide with fright.”

If the man’s, use:

“The man, eyes wide with fright, paddled furiously…”

The man and woman flailed and tried to swim to shore while being carried on by the chaotic flow. Soon, they disappeared under the water’s choppy surface.  I don’t like the “soon” here. “Soon” for me implies a fifteen minute rest period. Let’s try “quickly” to further convey the urgency of the situation:

The man and woman flailed while trying to swim to shore but were carried on by the chaotic flow. They quickly disappeared under the water’s choppy surface.

He held a rope, and while he bobbed toward the jutting rock, they could see him purposefully…  I take the sense that the boy is probably not so much holding the rope as hanging on for dear life. I like the sense of urgency you have going overall and want to keep that going, so let’s use a word that does that. For example:

He clung to a rope, and the pair on shore watched him purposefully (tell us what he is purposefully doing) while he bobbed toward the jutting rock.

Just to close…I like that the perspective of the story is from the point of view of the two crusty customers on the bank, who so far are sitting there watching what unfolds. The implication here is that there isn’t anything they can do to avert the catastrophe that is unfolding. They’re not taking any joy in it. They are just stoically watching nature take its course. Fortunately, the boy is not. My guess is that after the Prologue we’ll meet up with the boy as an adult and he’ll be the protagonist of your book. I look forward to finding out.

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically and unnaturally quiet as I turn the reins over to our wonderful visitors and commenters. Thank you for joining us, Anon, and good luck with Mannahatta!



I’m Joe…

…and I’m an alcoholic. Last Sunday, April 1, marked the conclusion of my twenty-seventh year of sobriety. I’ve had six additional days of sobriety as I am typing this and I’m hoping for another one as you are reading this.

I’ve talked about alcoholism and sobriety before in this venue — most recently two years ago — and I’m going to do it again. If you are writing and working on your twelfth book or the first five pages of your first one you might think that four or five glasses of wine help to lubricate the creative glands either while you are writing or before you even start. Fair enough. All I ask is that you keep yourself open to the possibility that your intake — if it is regular and excessive — may be holding you back rather than helping you.

Addiction can find a home with anyone but especially with creative folks. Evict it, and it just hides in a tree in the backyard and waits patiently for an open door or window to creep right back in.  It can take a while to recognize that you might have a problem if indeed you have a problem. I met a man in 1988 who told me straight up, within ten minutes of our introduction, that he was an alcoholic. “I’ve been sober for nine years!” he said. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, Nine years! Without a drink?! I can’t even go for nine days. It’s a good thing I don’t have a problem! Yep. That’s what denial looks like, and I’m not talking about the river in Egypt. It took me three years after that and a near tragedy to get myself together. 

Actually, make that several near tragedies. It is a miracle I’m sitting here. I’m glad that justice is a rare thing. If justice were in great supply I would be dead or in prison or on the street, rather than waking up in a nice home in a great neighborhood and having the privilege — and it is a privilege — of sitting here writing something for TKZ and having you read it.

It took me a while to figure something out. If you are going to write you have to treat it like you would a job, even if you’re not yet making any money from your endeavors or are making just enough to keep going. You wouldn’t show up at a regular job drunk or high — not with all those employee drug tests — because you would get fired. Don’t show up at your writing desk drunk, either. You’re on the road to firing yourself from the best job in the world.

If you think you have a problem — whether it’s with alcohol or drugs or gambling or whatever — you probably do. There is a test that you can take that might give you some guidance.   The argument about whether alcoholism is a disease or a character disorder has vigorous and excellent proponents on both sides. It ultimately doesn’t make any difference. It’s a problem and it won’t go away on its own. You need to take a step. What is now hysterically funny to me is that a couple of times I almost stopped but didn’t because I didn’t know how. That’s funny, in a way. But it’s also pretty sad, in retrospect. You would be surprised at how many people needing to take that important first step down the road to sobriety feel the same way. If you feel comfortable going to your physician about it, please do so. If you reflexively shy away from doing that, please try an AA meeting. If you Google “AA” and your city you’ll find a schedule. I guarantee that you will find several. Some target specific groups. Others are quite the mixed bag. I attended a meeting several weeks ago in support of a friend attaining his first year of sobriety.  There were doctors, attorneys, bikers, mechanics…but we were all siblings for an hour or so. If you don’t feel up to that just yet, then email me. I promise that I will get back to you immediately, do whatever I can to help, and take our conversation to my grave.

One last thing…if you do not have an addiction but have a family member who does then run — seriously, run — to an Al-Anon meeting. Again, just Google “Al-Anon” and your city. You are almost certainly one hour away from feeling less alone. You might attend one meeting and wonder who these strangers are who lead a life identical to yours.

That’s me today. Thank you for being here. You all are the best. And keep writing. Don’t let anything — like a bottle — or anyone, including yourself, get in your way.




First Page Critique: TATRICE

Photo (c) Kerrie Kelly via Pinterest

Happy Saturday! Please join me in welcoming Anon du jour for our irregularly featured presentation known as First Page Critique. Our First Page today introduces a work in progress titled Tatrice, so without further ado let’s take a look:

“Donna, get to this address for an interview.”

    I took the note and asked my boss, JJ, about my current assignment. He made a throat cutting gesture and I gritted my teeth. Two weeks research shot.

           “When is the appointment?”

           “Now. Get going.”

           “Excuse me, JJ. Who am I meeting?”                                    

           “It’s all there.” He flapped his hand toward the scrap of paper.

           The address was a magnificent Craftsman on the west edge of town. A tall, well-dressed man answered the doorbell.

           “Mr. Bonfig…”

           “Silent g. Bon-feel-ee-oh. Please come in Ms. Burdett.”

           My day went downhill from there.

     Mr. Bonfiglio and I had an unproductive first meeting. He claimed the only chair in the room sized for a lady so I sat on a leather ottoman rather than sink into the matching overstuffed armchair. I didn’t fancy him looking up my skirt. My strategy backfired. Now I found myself in imminent danger of sliding off the slick footstool. The muscles in my calf spasmed into a charley horse and I feared I would sprawl on the floor if my high heel broke. Nevertheless, my precarious seat was an improvement over getting sucked into quicksand cushions.

Since JJ failed to provide the nature of the assignment, I decided to jump right in. I would either stay at the edge of the pool testing the temperature or swim laps with this man.

“What can I do for you, Sir?” Thanks, JJ , for sending me here with nothing to go on. Was I supposed to write a piece on this fabulous house? My fingers itched to click away at the prospect. I flexed my ankle to relieve the cramp and slipped lower on the side of the footstool.

While I uneasily treaded water, he studied me as carefully as a prospective car buyer looking under the hood. Did he wonder why I didn’t take the chair he offered? We silently contemplated one another as I speculated on his marital status. My post graduation goals were to establish my career, get married and start a family before I turned thirty.

Thus far, except for my job, my time had been wasted on warm up exercises. Inexplicably, I was seldom asked for a second date. At age twenty-eight I saw myself as a speed swimmer poised on the starting platform. The finish line painted with that magic number loomed closer each week.

*                                *                              *

 Let’s start with the good, Anon. You do a terrific job in establishing that JJ, Donna’s boss, is a dou…um, jerk in just a couple of lines of dialogue. Donna’s interior dialogue tells us quite a bit about her as well, though perhaps a little early in the game.

Now for the rest. Let us begin with a few typos and then get to the meat of things:

“Two weeks research shot.”

Either “Two weeks’ research shot” or “Two weeks of research were shot” will fix that up.

— Also…”throat cutting,”  “room sized,” “post graduation,” and “warm up” should all be hyphenated. And…

— “Thanks, JJ ,“…let’s get that comma after “JJ” one space over to the left.

As to the meat of things, as it were:

The address was a magnificent Craftsman on the west edge of town. A tall, well-dressed man answered the doorbell.

I visualize a great big space between those two sentences, Anon, and you can help your story by filling it in. So the house where Donna is going is on the west edge of town. What town? How long does it take her to drive there? On the way, maybe Donna in her internal dialogue could tell the reader about the name of the company she works for, the nature of her job, whether JJ treats all of his employees so abruptly, and where she is in the company hierarchy. Perhaps she will be at her destination by the time she gives the reader that information. Donna at that point can give us more of a description of what she sees as she pulls up to Mr. Bonfiglio’s house. What is the neighborhood like? Does the house stick out or blend in? What is magnificent about it? Show us through Donna.


Now I found myself…

Drop the “Now” and begin with “I.” Your narrative is in the first person past so there is no “Now,” only “Then,” and you don’t really need “Then” here, either.


Mr. Bonfiglio and I had an unproductive first meeting.  

Whoops. You’re telling the reader this at the beginning of the meeting. Accordingly, the reader already knows what is going to happen.  Show your audience that rather than telling them. Leave that sentence out, and show the reader throughout the meeting that it is going bottoms up, instead of saying so at the beginning. Let the reader share Donna’s agony as the meeting unfolds, and establish empathy with her. After the interview, you can have Donna thinking about it as she is driving away, something to the effect of,”

“Well, THAT went well!” I thought, as I drove back to the office (or home, or to her favorite tavern, or whatever).


Which brings us to:

My post graduation goals were to establish my career, get married and start a family before I turned thirty.

Thus far, except for my job, my time had been wasted on warm up exercises. Inexplicably, I was seldom asked for a second date. At age twenty-eight I saw myself as a speed swimmer poised on the starting platform. The finish line painted with that magic number loomed closer each week.

This should all go somewhere else, such as after Donna’s meeting. You’re dropping it right at the beginning of her conversation with Bonfiglio and it brings everything to a halt instead of advancing things. The trip back to the office/home/wherever may also be a good place for Donna to review the current state of her life. When you do that, drop the word “(I)nexplicably.” Instead, why don’t you take a couple of sentences to have Donna describe her first dates and why she thinks they go well — shared interests with the person across the table, lots of shared laughs, the other party seemed interested and complimented her frequently — and then end the internal dialogue with Donna talking about waiting for the call that never comes. Communicate Donna’s befuddlement but drop a couple of hints that might indicate why she never gets a callback. Maybe it has something to do with her job, like constant complaints about her boss. 

Also, the metaphor that you used for the state of Donna’s life isn’t quite appropriate. What you are describing — Donna’s goals, and time running out — would more appropriately be described by a ticking clock, or a fuse burning, or, to use your swimming metaphor, the lane getting longer, not shorter, since Donna doesn’t seem to be getting any closer to her goal. I also notice that you like to use a lot of swimming metaphors, Anon. I hope that you are going to connect those to Donna’s life in some way. Maybe Donna was on the swim team in high school or college, or maybe it is her favorite form of exercise of recreation. Either way, it makes for a minor but interesting element of her personality, one that would make her feel more relatable to the reader and could perhaps tie into the main plot later in Tatrice.

Just in closing…I’m having a bit of trouble getting a handle on what sort of novel Tatrice is. I’m not being critical. If I were browsing either in a bookstore or online and saw Tatrice there would be a cover, the inside front jacket flap, or a RIYL hint to help me along before I skimmed the first page. That said, I  am fairly certain that Tatrice is not a thriller, hard-boiled detective novel, or science fiction. I’m guessing that it’s a cozy, cutesy, chicklit, or romance assuming that, on page three, Donna doesn’t look down the street and see the Zombie Apocalypse approaching.  Since I rarely read the latter genres, please accept my comments concerning the substance of the book with that in mind.

I shall now move out of the way and attempt to be uncharacteristically silent while our friends out there offer their own thoughts. Thank you again, Anon, for submitting your work to TKZ’s First Page Critique!







Remain Calm

Photo courtesy Louis N. Sorkin, BCE, AMNH

I offer the following with the intent of helping, knowing that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Those of us who visit TKZ on a regular basis are readers, among other things. As readers, we come into contact with books, and by “books,” for purposes of this discussion, I mean physical books. Part of that contact almost certainly includes visits to libraries, trips to used bookstores, and yes, the occasional foray into garage sales. Please note that you might bring home something other than words in that first edition you picked up for a quarter from the neighbor or that thirty-year-old book by a new-to-you author that you found at the library.

Someone I know recently showed me their ankle, which bore a number of horizontal puncture wounds with accompanying swelling. “Do you know what those are?” they asked. “Sure,” I replied. “Those are bed bug bites.” Hilarity did not ensue. I went into interrogation mode and had the person list all of the places they had been in the previous ten days. This was fairly easy to do, given that their cell phone tracked everywhere they been (yours almost certainly does the same thing). One place stood out: a library in the city we live in. “Well,” I said, “we know that you certainly can’t get bed bugs from the library!” Just to be sure, however, I did a little research and, contraire mon frere, the presence of bed bugs in libraries is becoming a significant problem nationwide.

There are a couple of reasons for this which aren’t important to our discussion here. What is relevant, however, is that once the little beasties are introduced into libraries they make their collective way into the books. This is particularly a problem with hardcover books, the majority of which have what are called “hollow backs,” where the spine of the book cover is not directly attached to the spine of the book block (the inner part of the book, consisting of all of the pages). If you open a hardcover book and peer down the spine from the top of it you can see the “hollow,” or tunnel. This gets larger with age and/or use of the book. The majority of paperback books have what are called “tight backs” where the spine of the book cover is directly attached to the spine of the book block, so that a hollow does not exist. However, you should flip through the pages anyway. Just to be sure.  Again, note the word “majority” here. In any event, bed bugs, it has been found, just love to nestle down in those hollow backs (for up to five years) and wait for someone to bring them home in a book, put the book on a bed headboard shelf, and go to sleep. For bedbugs, it’s kind of like being locked in a Duck Donuts shop overnight. Yum. The same problem theoretically exists in used bookstores, though I haven’t seen anything in the literature about that.

What to do? “Stop reading” and “stop patronizing libraries and bookstores” is NOT on the list. Just check the hollow backs of any books you borrow or buy going forward. If you peer down there (a flashlight helps) and if something waves back at you as you peer down the hollow then you have a problem. Stick the book in a ziplock bag, squeeze the air out, seal the bag and wait a few days. In space, no one can hear a bed bug scream. As it happened, I had several library books in the house when I was playing Doctor Kildare, so I immediately checked them. All of the books were fine. If you do find something, tell the library or bookstore. Libraries have become very proactive about dealing with this problem but the librarians have to be aware that the problem exists in their library before they can do anything about it. Again, I’m not trying to scare or panic anyone. It’s just a potential problem with which we must deal.

Question: what is the worst thing that you ever accidentally brought ho…actually, let me start over. What is the worst creepy-crawly that you have ever accidentally brought into the house? I was bringing in the daily paper for a vacationing neighbor and discovered that a spider had stowed away in the plastic bag. It was on the wrong side of the door when it manifested itself. I stomped it for something like a half-hour. Anyway, that’s me. Tell me what you have. And thank you as always for stopping by.