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.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

It is happenstance that I follow the excellent question posed by James Scott Bell yesterday in this space about the concept for writers of “Failing Up” with some thoughts on success and how to achieve it. The collection of individuals known as “writers” and “authors” have any number of motives for writing. One of the ones at the top of this list hopefully would be that each and all of them want to do so. Those of us who show up every week or two at this space with a post that we have written do so because we want to do it. We seek to help others, hope to entertain, and/or wish to sound off, among other things. The big one, however, is that we want to write. 

Some authors have reached the enviable point in their careers where they are under contract and must write in order to fulfill a contractual obligation, but wanting to do it is hopefully still their primary motivation. Sitting in front of a screen trying to fill a space beats looking forward to a day where a shovel and a ditch constitute the primary scenery and the scenery never changes. Others are trying to get to the point where someone is willing to pay them to write. They are honing their work in hope of piercing the hardened heart and mind of an editor. Again, however, they have to want to. And so it goes. In each case, a writer assembles the tools, skills, and ideas at hand and gets to work. 

It sometimes helps, however, to sit back for a moment (as opposed to a week, or a month, or longer) to discern what is one’s prime motivator, regardless of what they are trying to accomplish. I was reminded of this last week as I listened to a lecture titled “Counseling Your Client to Reduce Stress & Succeed in Litigation” given by Alan S. Fanger, Esq., as part of the lawline.com legal education series. Mr. Fanger, the president of EmpowerLegal, Inc. touched upon many subjects dealing with how to prepare a client for trial.  My major takeaway from his presentation, however, was a discussion concerning how to successfully accomplish a task. Mr. Fanger put forth the proposition that it is more important to focus upon what needs to be done to perform the task successfully than upon the consequences of the failure to do so. He concluded that focusing on consequences rather than how to do the job will guarantee failure.  

Mr. Fanger used an example from the world of professional football to illustrate his point. You don’t have to be a football fan to appreciate it.  There was a cringe-inducing moment during the 2016 NFC Wild Card playoff between the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. A Vikings player named Blair Walsh was tasked near the end of the game with kicking a field goal which would have, all other factors being equal, won the game for Minnesota. It was a short kick (for a professional football player) of twenty-seven yards. Walsh missed it, in front of God and everybody. It wasn’t as if Walsh was pulled out of the stands to make the effort, either. The game in question was a low scoring one. Walsh had actually scored all nine of Minnesota’s points during that game by kicking field goals from longer distances. He missed that last one, however. It was indeed a bitter pill to swallow, one that some football fans remember to this day. While none of us can accurately predict what goes through anyone’s mind in the moments before making an attempt at a task, Mr. Fanger submitted that perhaps Blair Walsh was more focused on the enormity of what would happen if he failed — losing the game and thus failing to advance to the Super Bowl that year — than upon what he needed to do to succeed. 

That conclusion may or may not be true. It makes sense, however. You may have heard of something which is currently called “analysis paralysis.” It’s a term applied to overthinking, which is easy to do because in a very subtle way it delays the need to make a decision as to what to do. Let’s look at a very famous incident that required immediate decision and focused implementation. I am sure that the name Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is familiar to all of you. Captain Sullenberger was piloting a commercial airliner when a bird strike shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport disabled his aircraft’s engines. Captain Sullenberger, a veteran Air Force and commercial pilot, made some calculations and concluded that landing at an airport wasn’t an option. He made a decision and told his control tower, “We’ll be in the Hudson.” That is where he landed his plane. The conclusion of that particular incident would have been quite different if Captain Sullenberger had focused upon and overwhelmed by the consequences of failure — job loss, destruction of property, and, oh yeah, loss of life — instead of upon the best method (under the circumstances ) of landing the plane and the passengers with which he had been entrusted. He made a decision and acted on it, focusing on what he needed to do to succeed. “We’ll be in the Hudson,” Just so. 

Think about Captain Sullenberger the next time you sit down to write and find that the old bugaboo — “I gotta finish this” — gets in the way. You probably have near at hand everything you need to succeed, including writing instruments, a command of language, imagination, the will to start, and your own mind.  I had all of those within reach when I began writing today’s post. I didn’t consider what would happen if I didn’t. It was more constructive and more fun, actually, to start writing and see, to paraphrase Dorothy Sayers, where my whimsy would take me. The finished product is just a bit different than what I had envisioned it would be, but that’s okay, too. I’m happy with it. I don’t know if I kicked it between the goalposts, but I think I landed in the Hudson, and I hope I didn’t lose anyone.  

Thank you for stopping by. Enjoy your weekend.

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Everything Old…

Happy 2020! I ushered in the New Year by freefalling into a web research wormhole while educating myself on the subjects of archeology, astronomy, and physics. There are some startling and occasionally frightening discoveries being made in all three fields — particularly astronomy — but today we are going to discuss a recent announcement concerning the significant archeological discovery in Egypt of an illustrated book.

Some of you under the age of twenty may be saying, “Big deal! My grandfather has a first edition of The Watchmen!” I’m talking about something a bit older than that. The book which was discovered is The Book of Two Ways, a work that was well known to historians and archaeologists in its previous editions prior to this latest discovery. It was written as a guide for a deceased individual as they make their journey through the Underworld, with the “two ways” of the title being the options of making the journey by land or by water. The advice presented in the work included spells that could be cast in order that the deceased might ultimately achieve immortality.

What makes this discovery significant is that this edition of The Book of Two Ways, which is estimated to be approximately 4000 years old,  is considered to be the earliest known illustrated copy of the work to date. The location where the book was discovered is particularly interesting, given that it was inscribed on a coffin (rather than being bound or in scroll form) at an Egyptian burial site housing the remains of a woman named Ankh. 

Let’s think about this discovery in modern terms. We have 1)  a coffin dual-purposed as a Kindle 2) containing the first graphic novel 3) which is a distant ancestor of the AAA Travel Guide. With regard to #3, maybe considering The Book of Two Days to be the very first Lonely Planet guide would be more appropriate. Calling it a collection of life hacks due to the spells it contains, however, might be a bridge too far. Still, it makes one wonder whether time truly is a flat circle.

I seriously doubt that the author(s) of the recently discovered edition of The Book of Two Ways considered for even a moment that a few thousand years down the road the discovery of their work would be considered a major archeological event. It goes to show you never can tell. It might be unlikely but the story that you are working on, as humble as it may seem to you now, might get similar treatment. Keep that in mind. As our mothers used to tell us, you only get one chance — if you get a chance at all — to make a first impression. 

The in-depth discussions of this discovery are for the most part buried behind paywalls, but I have ever so thoughtfully provided you with a link to a fairly interesting article here if you should care to read more about this. I also offer a tip of the fedora to Egyptologist Harco Willems, who directed the expedition which led to this discovery. If I had been at the helm I would have discovered nothing but camel spiders and left immediately. 

So…what is the oldest book that you own? Mine is a copy of The Eclectic First Reader by W.H. McGuffey. What is yours? Thanks for stopping by. 

 

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Gonna Find Out Who’s Naughty or Nice…

Photo by Karina Thomson from unsplash.com

The Christmas song “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” is weighing on my mind right now, and the reason isn’t just the season.  It is also because of the verse in the song which lightheartedly notes that Santa is making a list and checking it a couple of times for the purpose of finding out who is naughty or nice. Santa isn’t the only one who is doing that. Just about anyone — including you, and you, and you — can do it, too.

I had the occasion recently to get a look at an evidence list prepared by a local police department with regard to a homicide. I’ am not referring to the murder which occurred on my street last year. The one which I am discussing here took place in a neighboring suburb and involves a woman who has been charged with murdering her husband, who was a prominent physician in the area. The police in the course of their investigation subpoenaed, among other things, recordings made by the couple’s Echo devices; their ring cam and trail cam video recordings; and the ring cam video recordings of the house across the street from them. You may not know that your Echo and Apple devices aren’t listening only when you say, “Alexa, order me a pizza from Donatos” or “Siri, what is traffic like?” No, they are listening to everything you say, recording it, and storing it offsite in the cloud. Yes, I know, we have been assured that such recordings are erased after a certain amount of time. They aren’t, and police departments are increasingly utilizing these recordings in investigations. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to be sitting in a defendant’s Timberlands in court when an Alexa device plays back a recording of the accused telling someone, “I’m gonna kill that (insert your own term of endearment)!” This is thanks to technology in general and to devices in particular which may be sitting in your home.

Photo by Nvdu from unsplash.com

Did I mention police departments? Many or perhaps all of you have heard of ALPRs, or Automatic License Plate Readers. ALPRs take many forms. If you are fortunate enough to traverse a toll road on a regular basis you are probably aware that these devices are set up at the booths to scan your license plate. Should you blow through the gate without paying the piper your license plate number is duly recorded and read, the better so that the turnpike authority can send you an extremely expensive ticket. Similar units that do much more are now installed in police cars. They scan the license plates of parked and driven cars as the officer drives down the street. If the scanner detects a plate registered to someone who (to name one example) has a driver’s license which is suspended said someone’s information pops up on the unit’s screen, as does the license plate, the make and model of the car, and all sorts of other information. ALPRs were primarily used only by larger metropolitan police forces until recently. The cost of the hardware and software, however, has been reduced to the point that the price is within reach of most departments. Oh, a variation of it is available to you as well. Something that I call “ALPR lite” can behad bay anyone. It won’t give you the name, address, and vitals of everyone who drives by your house but it will record the license plate of any vehicle driving by the scanner hardware and the time of day it does it. It will also collate it. Anyone owning the hardware and possessing a subscription to the service can note how frequently a car bearing a certain plate number is driving past their house and the times that the visits occur. If there are frequent break-ins to homes or vehicles during times that coincide with the appearance of the vehicles or if the same vehicles pop up during porch pirating incidents this information can be given to the police for follow-up investigation. ALPRs are primarily being purchased and used by neighborhood associations and apartment complexes, but the price is under one hundred dollars per month and dropping. I would guess that within a couple of years — or maybe a few months — anyone who wants the service will be able to get it for less per month than for what they are spending on their overpriced coffee fix.

I mention this for a couple of reasons. From a professional standpoint, I am not seeing any of this technology being mentioned in mystery or domestic thriller fiction. That doesn’t mean that authors aren’t doing it, but I read enough of a cross-section of books in those genres that I would expect to be encountering it.  I can, without hardly trying, think of a few different ways that a writer stuck on a plot could build a whodunit using an ALPR or Echo-type device as a foundation. 

One last thing. Everything that makes you YOU is being analyzed, collated, considered, and shared as you do your holiday shopping and spending. The folks who issue those store loyalty cards that you scan at the checkout compile your purchasing data and sell it. Do you use credit cards or have installment loans? The information as to how you pay your debt each month is strained, drained, blued, tattooed and passed on. If you would like to see how your financial practices are sliced and diced, take a few minutes and check out this article, which discusses the minutia contained in your credit report and why you may or may not have difficulty the next time you go a financial institution looking for a loan. It’s fascinating information and it might provide an initial bit of grist for that financial thriller you’ve been thinking about writing. 

Photo by Edrece Stansberry from unsplash.com

I’m not trying to frighten you. I’m attempting to forewarn you by turning on a light to reveal a corner of the world that you may not be aware of. It isn’t just Santa who knows all about you when you are sleeping and what you are doing when you are awake. Be forewarned. And with that knowledge, please have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. We’ll see you in 2020 if the creek doesn’t rise. 

Photo by Metin Ozer from unsplash.com

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Giving and Receiving

Photo courtesy of Gregor McEwan on unsplash.com

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. The following took place in the weeks leading up to it. You will please note that I am still sorting it all out. 

I received on Thursday, November 7 an invitation to an email casting call for extras to be used in a feature film. The invitation requested a headshot, a full-length photo, my name, telephone number, height, and weight. I was advised that if I were chosen I would receive an email on Monday, November 11, with instructions for the time and location of the scene shoot on November 12 and 13. 

I didn’t receive an email. That’s okay. It wasn’t my first rodeo. Anyone who has ever been involved in the arts in any capacity either gets used to receiving rejections or finds something else to do. Life goes on. 

Flash forward a week or so. It was a cold and rainy day, the type where Churchill’s black dog runs off its leash. I was coming out of my local supermarket of choice and walking to my car when I saw a guy sitting forlornly on one of those motorized shopping carts which was stopped by a car, parked in a handicapped spot, with its trunk open. The shopping cart contained, among other things, a fifty-pound bag of dog food. Folks were hurrying by in both directions with their heads down. I couldn’t blame them. We’re all in a hurry even on the best of days and that day wasn’t one of them. There was also something about the tableau that was a little off. I’m still not sure what it was. But. But. I walked over anyway and asked the gent if he needed some help. “I sure could,” he said. The guy was disheveled. He looked like he’d been living rough. He also had a speech impediment which made him difficult to understand. I picked up the bag and put it into his trunk, placing his other smaller purchases in there for good measure. He got off the cart seat, took a couple of steps, and hugged me. Closely, cheek to cheek.  I hadn’t really signed up for gratitude, particularly of this nature,  but I kind of hugged him back and started to politely disengage. Just before he let go he whispered in my ear — no speech impediment present — and said, “What you wanted will be yours. Thank you.” I nodded and smiled — the type of smile you give to a stranger who you are attempting to politely leave behind — before walking to my own car and driving home.

I spent the remainder of the day working. UPS did not deliver a five-pound box of money. Sandra Bullock did not call to ask me to drive down to New Orleans and keep her company. A soon-to-be-published, world-wide best seller-to-be did not materialize on my computer in “Joe’s Manuscripts.” The phone, however, did ring at 10:20 PM. It was a representative of the talent agency which had sent me the email on November 7. They had another shoot scheduled for the same film-in-progress on November 27 and they wondered if I would be available. 

I told the representative “no.”

I’m kidding of course. I told him “yea, yea, and yea again” and found myself on the day appointed driving to Cleveland at 3:30 AM so that I could demonstrate my acting skills by pretending for several hours to act cold, wet, and forlorn on a suburban Cleveland street corner on a rainy and windy day. And yeah. What I wanted was mine. 

I believe in coincidences in the sense that a coincidence is a higher power acting anonymously. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe not. My younger brother told me that it was nothing more or less than me helping a stranger on the same day that the agency decided it needed what my brother called “an affable fat f**k” for the scene in question. A very wise friend of mine, however,  said with all of the assurance in the world that I had been tested by an angel. That conclusion is above my pay grade but he may be right. Or not. 

I have the foregoing — and so much more — to be thankful for this week and every week. As always I am thankful for friends like you and for family. I couldn’t ask for any more than that at this stage of the journey.

That’s all I have today. Thanks for dropping by. Enjoy your weekend. And don’t be surprised if you’re tested as well. 

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“There is no frigate like a book…”

I shifted earlier today from the “manic” gear of my personality into the “depressive.” I saw it coming, given that this is the time of year where we turn where the day is of darkness more than of light. To pile on, if you will, a friend of long standing remarked during a telephone conversation about how many books and authors there are plying their wares, and asked rhetorically, “Why bother?” Indeed. Through this and other static, I could hear Churchill’s black dog baying in the wee hours, even though he was not yet in sight. 

I, fortunately, had some St. John’s Wort at the ready in the form of a Lawrence Block novel entitled The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, which is part of the Bernie Rhodenbarr series. Block may be semi-retired now (he keeps threatening to stop, but only pauses), but when he was more actively pursuing his career he was quite prolific. It is difficult to have read everything he has written to date and somehow I had missed reading this title even though I have had a copy of it for almost a decade. One cannot come away from a Block novel without chuckling here, smiling there, and learning something along the way. There were some lessons presented in this book— how to bypass a home burglar alarm (circa 1979), for example — that I already knew, but —no surprise — there was plenty that I did not.

I learned that St. John of God is the patron saint of booksellers, and, interestingly enough, of alcoholics (there is a lesson here, I think).  I should digress to note, in case you are wondering, that the patron saint of writers and authors is St. James Sco… I mean, St. Francis de Sales.

 

The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling also includes also a quotation, however, that Block just kind of tosses out there and which, I have appropriated as the title of my offering du jour to you. 

“There is no frigate like a book.” That quotation is the title of a poem by Emily Dickinson. I must have been absent (or, more than likely, daydreaming) when poetry was covered in my Senior English because it was a case of first impression for me. I should have paid attention in class because it contains an important observation about the reason that we read and write, succinctly stated in seven words. I stopped reading the book for a bit and started down the internet rabbit hole, doing a bit of research concerning Dickinson, because I could, thus proving Dickinson’s point. You can’t hop off of a frigate in the middle of the ocean (well, you could, but it’s not a good idea) but the blessing — and yes, the curse — of a book is that you can stop reading, set it down, and start up again. I learned as a result of my digression that Dickinson was a virtual recluse for much of her life.  She communicated mostly by letter (for those of you under thirty, a “letter” was something that people wrote to each other before texting became popular). Dickinson wrote approximately 1,800 poems, of which not even a dozen were published during her lifetime. She apparently, unlike my friend, was not concerned with the number of other authors who were out there already published and plying their trade. She felt the need to write, so she did, to the exclusion of much, if not all, else. It is interesting to me that relatively few of her contemporaries (we’re talking mid-19th Century) are even remembered, let alone mentioned in, for example, a Paul Simon song. 

You may be click-click-clicking along on your word processor in obscurity right now. Keep doing that. If you get discouraged, think of Emily Dickinson, her life, and her words. There is no frigate like a book. You can build it at and on a desk and it can take you and your audience to places that they never would have imagined but for you. You can’t top that with a Ferrari or a Nintendo Switch or even Netflix, either. 

The gloom is now officially shaken off, thanks to a contemporary author, his burglar creation, and a long-deceased reclusive poet. It’s time to go back to work. First though, please tell us: who or what shakes you out of your doldrums, if doldrums you have, and why? Whether you choose to share or otherwise, thank you for being here. 

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Clearing Out the Spirits

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez courtesy unsplash.com

Today I’m giving you a bit of an update and a short observation. Let us start with the former. Some of you may recall my blog “…for the repose of the soul…” which I posted at TKZ on June 16, 2018. It concerned a husband who murdered his wife at their home on the street where I live during what had been a peaceful and quiet early summer evening. They had been separated for an extended period but were trying to work things through. The incident was accordingly totally unexpected. 

The husband was almost immediately arrested and jailed  The aftereffects of his actions roiled and rippled beneath the surface of neighborly encounters over the next several months. Conversations on the street either began or ended with a discussion of what had occurred and what would happen next. If there was any benefit at all to what had occurred it was that everyone on the street became just a bit closer. Folks who before had only waved in passing stopped to talk for a few moments or longer and there were a couple of block parties where those assembled talked out what had happened but discussed other things, too. The husband ultimately in November 2018  pled guilty to a charge of aggravated murder pursuant to a plea agreement which guarantees his imprisonment for the next two decades without the possibility of parole. 

Time and life have moved forward now that justice of a sort has been obtained.  The home where the couple lived and raised their children, the home where the evil deed was committed, was extensively redecorated. There was some question as to what would happen to the house and how quickly, whether a buyer would find it sooner rather than later or if it would be on the market for an extended period of time, given the history. It actually sold very quickly. The new neighbor moved in on a quiet, snowy day in February 2019. She is delightful, a very down-to-earth person of southern origin who leads with a twinkle in her eye and who is a bit of a character around the edges in all of the best ways. When I first met her I told her that I was glad that the house had a new owner so quickly, given that people tend to shy away from places where darker incidents have occurred. Her response was that in such situations the problem is with the people who commit the actions and not the house. Just so. 

It is the house, however, which she ultimately decorated for Halloween a few weeks ago. And what decorations they are. She has transformed her front yard into a graveyard, with tombstones sprouting from the ground like toadstools after a summer rain. She has giant spiders — I mean these are big-posterior spiders — crawling up (or is it down) the front of the house around the upstairs windows. The most noteworthy decoration, however, can be found on the front porch. The entrance is festooned with hazard tape and the front storm door features with bloody handprints and the words “HELP ME” written in crimson.

Now for the observation. What does it say about me that I find this by turns to be wonderfully appropriate and hilariously inappropriate in ways that I have difficulty describing? Not everyone on the street is amused as I am, of course. A couple of my neighbors whispered to me that the display was in poor taste. My response was that if they felt strongly about it they should take up a collection and start paying our neighbor’s mortgage and property taxes. Otherwise, it’s her home, and she can decorate it for Halloween the way that she wants. The most telling reaction came from the neighbor across the street from her, who with his wife was best acquainted with the husband and wife who are respectively now in prison and deceased. The close neighbor said that, if our late neighbor were able to do so, she of all people would probably enjoy the display the most. I get that. It’s exactly the way I would want to be remembered, should I meet my unplanned but inevitable demise in a memorable if notorious way. 

There’s more than that going on here, however. I can recall when people who were moving into a new domicile would invite a clergyman over to bless the home. Nobody called it an exorcism, and that wasn’t the form of it by any means, but it was done not only with the hope of keeping things reasonably happy and peaceful going forward but also chasing out any nasty emotions that might be lingering and hiding in the rooms, corners, and cupboards. I think that is what my very practical and savvy new neighbor is doing. That’s my observation and I’m sticking to it.

So let’s raise a glass a frosted glass of apple cider (or your favorite fall beverage) to that most macabre of holidays just past, when tastes, rich or poor, are celebrated. If you have any similar stories, be they recent or long ago, that raised a “tsk” or two when they occurred, please share. And thank you as always for being here today. 

 

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What Writers Can Learn from the Housecat

(c) Copyright Fennec the Cat. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

It is October. Dark and light chase each other as they battle for supremacy,  a conflict which the dark is pre-ordained to win at this time of year. A potentially paralyzing ennui has a tendency to sit in and take its grip on some of us during this time of year. There are many ways to break this, such as turning on every light in the house, reading that backlist of your favorite author, blasting music, binge-watching a television series on your favorite streaming service, or all of the above, sometimes at the same time. Still, for writers, the flow of ideas with the transformation to sentences occasionally tends to ooze like syrup rather than flow like water. At such times we would be wise to consider the housecat. 

Yes. The housecat. It has so prestigious a title, yet so little to do. Its brain cannot conceive of us as anything other than giant cats (so we are told) which possess opposable thumbs, placed on earth to do their bidding on demand, even if we are doing something more important (such as listening to The Complete Prestige 10-Inch LP Collection by Miles Davis) or otherwise. Fennec, my own black-and-white cat, occasionally interrupts his eat/litterbox/sleep/repeat cycle to request entry to my attached garage. Herein lies the lesson. 

The garage for Fennec is what the mind is to writers. We search our minds for ideas. Fennec, particularly at this time of year, goes into the garage in search of mice. Rodents find the garage to be attractive at this time of year due to its (relative) warmth. It took me a while to figure out why Fennec, immediately after entering the garage, rolls around on the garage floor. I figured out that he is masking his scent. Once Fennec is sufficiently garage-odiferous he waits patiently for a mouse — the idea, if you will — to manifest itself. Sometimes Fennec waits on the floor. He at other times sits atop the car, like a vulture on a branch. A mouse eventually appears. Fennec pursues. Sometimes he comes up empty. When I open the door and he comes in empty mouthed he appears to be forlorn, the same way that we do if an idea fails to bear literary fruit. If Fennec catches something, however, he runs into the house triumphantly, with the mouse — his completed novel — in his mouth. He tosses it up in the air and catches as he runs from room to room without missing a beat as I — his most avid reader — chase after him, hoping that 1) the mouse is squeaking in the Choir Invisible or 2) the mouse is stunned enough that I can get it into a plastic bag and dispose of it before it scatters off into an inaccessible corner of the house where it will no doubt bear a litter. 

We’ve gone through this Mr. Punch routine several times in the past two weeks. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, I’ve learned a lot by watching. I’ve been taught that ideas will come and will be transformed into sentences. I just need to wait patiently. I also need to be ready to pounce when they manifest themselves. And yes, I am allowed to throw them in the air, juggle them, and catch them if the mood strikes me. As are you. 

Enjoy October and Halloween. I hope you catch what you seek. In the interim…what have you learned about writing, life, or anything, from your or someone else’s pet? Thank you for stopping by, as always.

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Nurturing That Nature

I spent a bit of this past week reading a newly published collection of shorter fiction titled FULL THROTTLE written by an author named Joe Hill. You may or may not know that Hill is one of the sons of authors Stephen and Tabitha King. It is a very generous volume with stories — his second, in addition to several novels — that stand smartly in the horror genre while dipping a toe or two into the fantasy, romance, mystery, and thriller genres as well. Hill, as it happens, is a magnificent author whose work has been or is being adapted to video for cable networks and streaming services. He is so good, in fact, that I believe that the stories in FULL THROTTLE may well mark a turning point of sorts that leads to the point where King will eventually become known as Joe Hill’s father instead of Hill being known as Stephen King’s son. Who becomes more famous than who, however, is not really the question that brings me here today. 

Hill begins the festivities in FULL THROTTLE with an introduction titled “Who’s Your Daddy?” where he discusses growing up in a house where a child has a parent who is very, very good at what they do — who is a household name in other households besides their own — and what occurs when the child decides to make their mark in the same endeavor. “Who’s Your Daddy?” is a good sixteen pages long and rambles wonderfully in the manner of the best conversations. Hill along the way kind of/sort of answers the unspoken question of whether nature or nurture is responsible for his success. My take on what Hill says is that he is not a great writer because his parents were and are great writers so that he thus acquired his abilities by osmosis. No. If you read the lines and in between them Hill acknowledges that he is able to do what he does at the level he has accomplished because Stephen and Tabitha King are terrific parents. 

Hill describes a bunch of things that formed the constellation of life in casa de King. Two of the many which stood out are that 1) Dad read to him, every night; 2) his folks rode through his difficult years with him; and 3) his parents supported his career choices every step of the way. Think about having Stephen King reading to you every night, as opposed to the reverse — you reading Stephen King — which many of us experienced. #2? Yes, those of us who grew from kids to parents have experienced both ends of that. Not all of us become great writers, however. Or necessarily great anythings. And #3? Maybe that is the biggie. It’s not just that Mr. and Mrs. King understood where their son wanted to go. They tossed him the keys to a car with a full tank of gas and let him know they had his six. That might be the most important element of all.

That brings us to the tip of the real key to Hill’s success. His parents couldn’t give him his talent, but supported his choices and let him make his own mistakes. What Hill also describes is writing, from the time that he could hold a pencil properly and knew what to do with the business end (jab it into someone’s eye, of course! EEEEEEEEEEEE!) (just kidding. I mean it is Joe Hill, after all). He mentions trying, unsuccessfully, to write in the style of The New Yorker, and composing three novels which were just never meant to be published. Hill also discusses his decision to adopt a pen name so that he wouldn’t get published because of who he is as opposed to what he is. Yes, some doors opened a little more quickly once his identity was revealed. Those same doors would have shut very quickly — heck, they would have slammed shut — if he did not have the goods, Hill wrote, wrote, and wrote some more before he ever had a word of his writing see the light of day. In addition to the books, movies, and television adaptations, Hill even has his own comic imprint coming very quickly from DC Comics, which doesn’t hand those things out like Frosty coupons at Halloween just because of who his (or anyone’s daddy is. No, Hill got there the same way his dad did, which was to sit and write every day and night — sometimes into the night — until he got close to where he wanted to be, and then he wrote some more. There is a theory that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to get really good at something. Maybe that is true, and maybe it’s something to remember when you feel in the middle of winter like you’re a monkey at a typewriter, hoping to randomly strike the keys and come up with Macbeth. In Hill’s case, his folks helped him out by giving him the tools he needed and staying out of his way by turns, according to what he needed. 

That’s his story and I’m sticking to it. What say you? Which do you think has had a greater role in helping you get where you are, or where you are going? Nature or nurture? If I don’t reply immediately it will be because I am out buying my granddaughter art supplies. Have a great day, and thanks for being here. 

 

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Knives Out!

It is Thursday, September 19, 2019, as I write this. I had been working on my blog for Saturday, September 21 — what you who are reading this will call “today” — when I realized that it just wasn’t working. I started with the intent of presenting some suggestions concerning how to make good writing even better. Soon, however, I found myself discussing Miles Davis, Henry Kissinger, and Kurt Godel. That was all well and good, but I was meandering down multiple roads and decided to save that piece of work for another time. 

Instead, I’m going to talk about a new movie titled Knives Out. An ad for it popped up while I was looking at knives online and I was quickly diverted. It is scheduled for wide-release in the United States on November 27, which by amazing coincidence is Thanksgiving Day this year. Knives Out is pertinent here because it is a mystery, dark comedy film about a fabulously successful crime novelist who invites his very dysfunctional family back home to help him celebrate his eighty-fifth birthday. The novelist is named Harlan (you’re laughing already) Thrombey who physically bears an uncanny resemblance to a popular thriller author who is not the one you are laughing about. Thrombey is murdered during the gathering and a police detective is called in to sort out who in his family did what.

Knives Out will almost immediately you in the mind of an Agatha Christie novel, and from what I have seen in the film’s trailers (which you can find links to here) it winks at its heritage — and thriller and mystery novels in general — several times. The camera lens glides over rows and rows of books (“Did I see one by Harlan Coben?!”). Thrombey, it is clear,  is a fan of A Game of Thrones, as demonstrated by a particular piece of decor in his home. I also don’t think that it is coincidental that one of the primary members of the cast happens to be associated with one of the most enduring characters in action film history, which in turn is based on a gold standard series of spy novels.  

Oh. I mentioned the cast. Daniel Craig has a lead role. You will forget fairly quickly that he plays whats-his-name in the movies. Jamie Lee Curtis is here. Let’s talk for a minute about Jamie Lee Curtis. No one realizes how good an actress she is. Curtis played a lead role in a horror movie franchise that would have sunk the career of a lesser actress. Think about that. She’s still around because she is really, really good at what she does. Don Johnson. Yes, Don freakin’ Johnson, who in his seventies is still the coolest guy in the room, even when he’s not in the room. There are others. Check out the link to the website, above and you’ll see several million dollars worth of talent on the screen. There are supposed to be all sorts of theatrical easter eggs throughout the movie as well. I even learned that the viewers will actually be able to figure out whodunnit if they can identify five clues that are presented during the course of LIGHTS OUT and put them together correctly. 

The primary reason I am psyched on KNIVES OUT, however, isn’t the cast, the scenery or the dialogue (which sounds exquisite from what I heard in the trailer). It’s not how wonderfully it’s staged and filmed, even though I jumped each of the three times that I saw the same two-second clip. The clip? It involves a cheek and…something else. No. What I love about KNIVES OUT is that it is about an author. Yes, he gets murdered, but he has lots of cool stuff in his house, seems to be a bit of a jerk, and is worth killing. He is interesting, in other words. Authors are interesting. They have to be to think up stories that are worth reading. It might not seem that way to everyone, but everyone doesn’t get to hide behind a palm tree the way that I did several years ago in a hotel lobby with a famous author, a really interesting author, who was trying to avoid a clinging, stalking fan. KNIVES OUT doesn’t look like it is quite up to that experience — what possibly could be? — but it is close. Check the website and trailers, and make your plans to see it in a couple of months at a multiplex near you. It will be showing in the theater with the line of grownups waiting to enter. 

Are there any movies that you are looking forward to or any films about authors that you love? Let us know. And thanks for stopping by. You’re the best.

 

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The One-Millionth Storytime

I had originally intended today to gripe gently about a couple of topics.  During my research,on those topics, however, I stumbled across something else — check out Sue Coletta’s excellent blog from last week about “research rabbit holes” to read about how that happens — that I found to be very interesting and incredibly hopeful and which makes, I believe, for a better topic. 

Barnes & Noble (B&N) is celebrating today (September 7) and tomorrow (September 8) c something they are calling “Our One-Millionth Storytime.” I don’t know how they arrived at that number or how close it is to accurate. What I do know is that whenever I have been in a B&N store anywhere I have always peripherally noticed an announcement posted in or near the children’s section about a scheduled storytime. This is going back to 2001 or so, and probably before that. Someone who when they were two or three years old and may have been taken there by their parent for storytime may well be taking their own child there now, braving the gauntlet of books and book-related toys, dolls, stuffed animals and the like, to enjoy the shared experience of hearing a story, of being read to. The good folks at B&N have weathered several wounds over the years, some by circumstances beyond their control (drops in readership) and others by friendly fire (the, uh, Nook). They still, however, present those storytimes, week in and week out. 

That is dedication.  An undertaking of that type involves more than just pulling out a book and reading to a gaggle of children and a place and time certain. B&N has to have someone there who is good with children and who is ready to show up and smile even when they don’t feel like it, someone else to deal with the accidents that little ones have at the drop of a Huggies, and someone else to restore the children’s section to its pristine condition afterward. All of this is predicated on the hope of generating goodwill and planting the seed of love of reading in the minds of those assembled. Talk about your Hail Mary forward pass. They still do it, however, and someone has calculated that they’ve done it around one million times, collectively. Well played. 

I am not sure if every single B&N in the country is participating in this commemoration but if you are lucky enough to have a little person in your life, whether one or more generations down, you might want to consider checking to see if your local store is marking this event and if so taking your little loved one so that they can participate. If your financial circumstances permit you might also consider showing a bit of commercial appreciation to the folks at B&N by purchasing something for yourself or, better yet, your child. I like Kindles — my Fire HD8 is velcroed to my hand — but there are some things, darn it, that you can’t do with an eReader, and a group story session with a bunch of other kids who listen to the words while they hear the sound of pages turning is one of them. 

Thank you, B&N. And thank YOU for stopping by today. 

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