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.

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.


Forgotten. But Not Gone.

I’m traveling today through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey…wait a minute. Let me begin again. I kind of feel the way that I did the first time I walked into a Rocket Fizz store a couple of years ago and saw all sorts of different brands of candy that I hadn’t seen the 1960s.  I’m not talking about candy, however. I’m talking about books. To be more precise, I’m talking about buying books through the mail, long before something called “Amazon” became a business.

This feeling occurred while I was trying to decide what to write about for my blog post this morning. That would be the one you are reading right now. I had four — yes, four — different topics going but they all each and all kind of meandered into nowhere. I got on a tangent involving how the science fiction genre has changed and got nostalgic for The Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC). Those of you of a certain age will remember book clubs. There was Book of the Month Club, SFBC, and the Mystery Guild (MG). There might have been a club for romance books as well. I belonged to the SFBC for almost fifteen years, from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. It was easy to join. You perused an ad insert— usually in a science-fiction magazine — tore it out, filled out a membership card, selected a certain number of books for a few dollars plus postage, and mailed it and  your check to the club. You agreed to buy two or four books at the regular price sometime over the following two years. Every three weeks or so you were sent (there was no email in those days, no Amazon, no internet, no cable television) a catalog offering two feature offerings, a backlist, and a few exclusive three-in-one volumes or some such thing. If you wanted the two feature books, they made it soooooooo easy! You didn’t have to do anything!  You just waited and the SFBC would send you the books. If you didn’t want one or both of them, however, the cat was on your back to send a pre-printed card back by a certain date, affirmatively stating that you didn’t want the books. The card also gave you the opportunity to order other books if you wished. It was kind of an honor system. It was cool, but it was also a bit of a pain to send the cards in on time. If you didn’t do so for a couple of months your front porch soon resembled that of Mickey Mouse’s in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” except with books instead of brooms. I kind of lost interest in the whole concept when the science fiction genre began to change and while the idea of The Mystery Guild was intriguing I was kind of sour on the whole mail order thing. I could pretty much get whatever I wanted from bookstores. I quit hearing about book clubs and the like in the 1990s and assumed they had gone the way of the phone booth.

And I was wrong!

I discovered not one-half hour ago that the SFBC and MG have bravely and mightily soldiered on, in updated fashion. They both have changed a bit. No more catalogs, and no more honor system (you submit your credit card information when you join). They do have a couple of enticements to get you to join and to remain a member, and, most importantly, to continue buying books. I have to give them credit for staying with the mail order game for books. I mean, after all, that they had a hand in creating the concept of books and with The Book of the Month Club more or less ruled the territory, until ol’ Chrome Dome from Seattle,, genius that he is, kind of moved in and took over the sandbox. Both clubs continue to stake out their genre niche, however. You can access the Mystery Guild website here and the Science Fiction Book Club website here.

I’m kind of wondering…why don’t more readers talk about this? Why don’t I see more of a MG presence at reader/author conventions like Bouchercon and Thrillerfest? Or are they there and hide when they see me coming? Is the fact that these businesses have continued to operate well known to everyone but me, kind of like the Channel Zero anthology on the SyFy Channel?  And…if you don’t feel like answering those questions…tell me if you would one or more things that you loved as a child (or teenager) that you thought was gone forever, but have discovered is still around. Please. And thank you.


Winter Tails

Photo (c) 2018 by A. L. Thummz. All rights reserved.

I for whatever reason am occasionally asked for advice about writing. My bottom line suggestion — one that I follow myself only after being dragged to it, kicking and screaming — is to tell the story simply. Not everyone needs to be James Lee Burke, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison or Cormac McCarthy, and they shouldn’t be. Write from Point A to Point B, at least at first. You have to build the wall before you decorate it. Get those corners at right angles and those verticals plumbed in your story before you decorate it. You’ll have plenty of time for that later. Your story or novel isn’t going anywhere unless your cat walks across the keyboard and steps on the delete button.

That brings me to an example of the foregoing.

There is a feral cat who has been coming around since late last spring. We call him “Felix.” He’s grey and skittish. His trust is measured in incremental inches, bought and paid for with food on demand. Felix disappeared for several weeks near the end of summer.  I was fairly certain that he had crawled into the brush to await the arrival of the picadors and had risen to meet them one last time. He surprised me, however, by returning near the end of October, gazing at me through the rear sliding glass door with an expression that probably translated to, “Yeah? Whaddya want from me?” He has visited regularly since. It’s been a tough winter, and I’m surprised whenever I see him, but see him I do, and almost every day.

Felix and I tell each other a story each day.  When I get up each morning I turn all of the backyard lights on. Felix always shows up within ten minutes. His arrival is heralded by Demonspawn, the resident housecat and indoor maitre ‘d. I bring the food out while Felix stands an arm’s length (mine, not his) or so away from me until I go back into the house. If he wants more, he hangs around and I give him more. We follow the same pattern at night. Sometimes I’ll see his footprints on fresh snow, weaving in the same pattern he always makes, and know that one of us missed the signal. I make it up on his next pass.

The story that Felix and I tell each other is simpler than that, however.  He tells me he’s hungry. I tell him I care. Actually, that’s the root of just about every story, from Aesop’s Fables to The Bible to The Dark Tower series and beyond. So there you go.

Simple stories aren’t just for children, but it’s during childhood that we normally hear our first ones. Are there any that you care to share?

As always, thank you for stopping by. And if you are able please take a minute to feed our friends outside. It’s a cold one this year.


First Page Critique Goes House Hunting: The House on Horace Street

Photo courtesy pixabay.com

Hello, Anon du jour! Welcome to the neighborhood. Anon has brave submitted the first page of what appears to be a domestic thriller or gothic suspense novel titled The House on Horace Street which features an unsuspecting homeowner and an archetypal adversary known as a real estate agent! Just kidding. Let’s take a look at what we have:

Neither of them saw the cold black eyes that watched them from the bedroom window as the car meandered up the dirt pathway and pulled to a stop. A quiet eeriness hung heavy around the house. Theresa drummed her fingers on her knee. Joan, Theresa’s real estate agent, let out a nervous laugh. Theresa got out of the car and cupped her hand over her eyes to block the glare of the sun ash she stared up at the home. White with red shutters. Old. Solid. Proud. Nothing about it fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. The street was neatly lined with identical cape cods on both sides, each on a half acre. The 1790s colonial farmhouse sat on five acres of land in the middle of the neighborhood. At some point the entire neighborhood was once part of the five acres. The lot was in disarray: trees here and there with no order to them, grass that, upon closer inspection, was just weeds the current owner cultivated into a makeshift lawn, and an overgrown circular garden in front of the house that suffered from neglect. Still, Theresa was intrigued. She’d always wanted a hobby farm and the house on Horace Street fit the bill which made her willing to overlook the fact that the house changed hands 7 times over the past ten years.

“Well, the land is in desperate need of landscaping,” Theresa said.

“That just means you have the opportunity to design it to your tastes, and there’s plenty of open, level space perfect for the vegetable garden you said you wanted to have,” said Joan.

“Some of the trees will have to be cut down, too.”

“Free firewood for the fireplace.”

“Are you trying to sell me on this house, Joan?”

“I am a realtor!”

Their giggles chipped at the tension neither of them admitted to. Joan hesitated for a moment before she made her way onto the covered porch to get the key from the lock box. Theresa was looking at the porch, taking note of its sturdiness.

“The porch was rebuilt last spring,” Joan said, “wraps all the way around the house. Just needs a good staining and it will be beautiful.”

“Usually porches just go around one side.”

Anon, I got a kick out of your first page since I have had many conversations with real estate agents over the past few months. I live in an area where there is a very low inventory of homes for sale and very high demand, so I get called once or twice a week by agents who urge me to put my house on the market. You have their patter down, um, pat. Anyway, your first page has good bones. The interior, however, needs a bit of rearranging. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to that.

— Let’s start with that first sentence. Move it to the end of this opening vignette — which is probably on your second or third page — changing it so that the car is driving away from the house rather than approaching it. You can then build your suspense incrementally, with the kill shot, if you will, coming at the end of the chapter or vignette.  Begin with the line “A quiet eeriness…” then go ahead and introduce Joan and Theresa.  Describe the outside as you have done (but see below), and then have Joan and Theresa go into the house and walk around a bit. If you haven’t already, set up the elements which hint that all is not right within. Let Joan and Theresa hear a couple of random creaks (“These vintage houses have good bones, but bones creak occasionally!”). Also have Joan notice that a couple of very minor things seem out of place from the last time she was there (if she was there), anything from a toilet seat being left up to a pencil being left on a counter or her real estate business cards being moved. Then, after they’ve left the house, mention how neither of them notice the cold black eyes watching them drive away.

— The rest of the first paragraph needs a bit of updating. We’ll talk about that in a minute. Before we do that, however, I’ve got a couple of punch list items that should be fixed:

  1. There’s a glaring typo in the fourth sentence:  “in the sun ash she stared”…  I believe you mean “in the sun as she stared…”

     2. You describe the home’s lot with a long sentence composed of clauses with a colon            and commas:       

“The lot was in disarray: trees here and there with no order to them, grass that, upon closer inspection, was just weeds the current owner cultivated into a makeshift lawn, and an overgrown circular garden in front of the house that suffered from neglect.”  

Turn those clauses into sentences:

“The lot, however, was in disarray. Trees grew here and there with no order to them.  The lawn was a collection of weeds which threatened to engulf a neglected overgrown circular garden in front of the house.”

       3) I think what you are saying here is that some of the land that was a part of the original farmhouse acreage was parceled off to create the surrounding neighborhood and that five acres still belong to the farmhouse. If that is the case, the neighborhood wouldn’t have once been part of the five acres. It would have been part of a larger acreage that had been parceled out so that only five acres are left of the existing property. If so, you want to say something like this: “The surrounding neighborhood had been parceled out from what had once been a much larger farm.”

       4) While we are talking about numbers, you want to be consistent in how you state them. I’m referring to the house changing hands “7 times over the past ten years.” Try “seven times over the past ten years” (my preference) or “7 times over the past 10 years.” Most but not all writing guides say to use words instead of numbers but consistency is key here.

— Now, let’s go back to the paragraph in general; You discuss the house exterior and lot, then talk about the neighborhood, then return to the house and lot. Let’s describe the house and lot first from Theresa’s viewpoint, and then talk for a second about the neighborhood in comparison to the house. While we are doing that, let’s break that long paragraph up into shorter paragraphs. I think it will be easier to read::

Theresa got out of the car and cupped her hand over her eyes to block the glare of the sun as she stared up at the home. She had done plenty of research on the 1790s colonial farmhouse when she had first considered looking at it.

She felt that the house and lot were a mass of contradictions.  The house itself looked old, solid and proud. Its white color set off its red shutters nicely. Its fiveacre lot, however, was in disarray. Trees grew here and there with no order to them. The lawn was a collection of weeds which threatened to engulf a neglected overgrown circular garden in front of the house.

Nothing about the house fit in with the rest of the neighborhood.  The street was lined with identical neat cape cods on both sides, each of which sat on a half acre. The lots had been carved from what had been the much larger working farm property at some point in the past. Theresa was intrigued, however, even considering the property’s drawbacks. She’d always wanted a hobby farm and the house on Horace Street fit the bill. It made her willing to overlook the fact that the house had changed hands seven times over the past ten years.

In short, Anon, your first page is a fixer-upper but has good bones and with some updating and changes, your story will find a good home with lots of prospective buyers. Good luck!

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically silent as I turn the page over to our many friends at The Kill Zone for their observations. Thank you, Anon, for bravely submitting your work to our First Page Critique!



Goin’ by Fats’ House

Happy New Year! As promised, what follows is my account of meeting Fats Domino…

(c) Copyright tripadvisor.com. All rights reserved.

One of the first rock ‘n’ roll records that I recall hearing was “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino. I was blessed to have grown up in the 1950s and 1960s, when Top 40 radio was a wonderful mix of rockabilly, soul, rock, doo-wop, country & western, and r&b. It made for some exotic blocks of music — Everly Brothers followed by Barbara George giving way to Ferrante & Teicher and then Rick Nelson — but it was never boring. If you didn’t like a song, you just waited. You’d hear something you would like before too long. It was Fats, however, more than anyone else, who spoke to me. I had a friend (and he’s still a friend) whose older sister, LM,  had one of the best record collections I’d ever seen or heard at that point in time, and it included all sorts of Fats Domino 45s, many of which I’d never heard up until that point. We spent hours listening to them, particularly the ‘B’ sides, which were rarely played on the radio. I remember leaving his house one afternoon, my friend and me and another guy singing Fats’ infectious “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday.” We were 10 years old at the time. We all got old, but the songs never did.

(c) Copyright Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved.

Fast forward to 1999. 45s had become a novelty, confined to limited pressing collector item releases. What were called “car phones” were being replaced by “cell phones” and “cell phones” didn’t have cameras or GPS or maps yet. The first iPhone would be released in eight years. Something called “google” was about a year old and something else called “wifi” was slowly making its way into the lexicon. Primitive times. November of that year found me in New Orleans on business. It was during this particular visit that I had lunch with a local musician who we’ll call J and whose extended family had for three generations been an integral part of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. While we ate a couple of coma-inducing po’boys we talked about the city’s history. He looked somewhat askance at me a couple of times from across the table, expressing wonder at how a middle-aged white guy “not from around here” knew so much about his family and their musical contributions. The wonder turned to amazement when I took him back to my hotel room and played him some CDs of New Orleans music I had brought with me — iPods were two years away — which included recordings his relatives had played on but that he had never heard. We talked a bit more and were almost wrapping up when he said, “Hey, what are doing this afternoon? You got a car? You wanna go by Fats’ house?”

My answers were “nothing,” “yes,” and “hell yes.” It was a trip I had wanted to make on previous visits but given that the New Orleans street system — designed, apparently, by a spider on LSD — was daunting,  I had over the course of a few visits only slowly started to venture into the city’s neighborhoods and out of the French Quarter. So, yes, if J wanted to direct me to Fats Domino’s house — deep, deep in the ‘hood known as the lower Ninth Ward — I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. After a sinus-clearing trip on the freeway with J’s occasionally helpful guidance (“left…no…no, right…no…left…NO, RIGHT! RIGHT! RIGHT!”) through a heavy thunderstorm, we wound up driving down Caffin Street and approaching its intersection with Marais Street I saw what I was sure was the house in question on the right. It appeared to be a shotgun-style duplex, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence, with the words “Fats Domino Publishing” spelled out in lights on the front of the house.

When J had asked if I wanted to “go by Fat’s house” I assumed that he meant drive “by,” as opposed to “stopping.” And going in.  As we were um, driving by, however, J said, “Pull over there” pointing to a portion of the driveway which was in front of the house outside of the fence. I did. He got out of the car, then looked at me funny as I remained in the car, still not fully comprehending what was happening. He said, “C’mon!” and I did, turning off the engine and then stumbling a bit as I followed him. My brain and my body hadn’t quite synced up with the concept that I was walking into Fats Domino’s house. J in the meantime had negotiated the fence gate as the front door of the house opened. And there stood Fats.

I have often described myself as being too short for my weight (as opposed to weighing too much for my height) and such was certainly true of Fats. He had the appearance, as he stood there smiling shyly, of being compressed. Still very substantial at 5’4” and over 200 pounds, he nonetheless gave the impression of being possessed of a certain physical frailty. J introduced me as his “manager” (I wasn’t) and I shook hands with Fats (even as I write those words, I still can’t quite believe it) as he ushered us into his house. Please note: we were in Fats’ house, which was a combination annex and office. His HOUSE, actually, was next door, a huge place on Marais Street where he and his family (and several large automobiles) resided. The world-famous Cadillac Couch, however — a three seater fashioned from the tail-end of a Cadillac — was in the annex. Fats waved me over to it, saying something. I at that point in time was very unfamiliar with the New Orleans patois (which varies from neighborhood to neighborhood) and will confess that I couldn’t understand what he was saying. When I continued to stand there, however, he laughed and said, “Siddown!” I did. Carefully. He and J sat and talked for a bit — I couldn’t follow the conversation, but it was something about one of J’s relatives — and after about ten minutes they finished up their business. As we got up to leave, Fats shot me a smile and walked over to a beautiful piano, where he sat down, and then played and sang the introduction and opening verse of “Blueberry Hill.” It would be an understatement to say that he still had the magic. His voice was strong and his playing was complex, confident and flawless. It was if a switch had been flipped on inside of him when he sat down, releasing the muse entrapped from the reserved, seemingly infirm man with whom I had spent the past several minutes.  All I could think was, “I wish that LM were here.”

(c) Copyright Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved.

When Fats stopped playing I started to clap but he ducked his head shyly again and waved me off. J said to him, “Why don’t you give him one of those Christmas records?” and he did, handing me a copy of a disc titled Christmas Is a Special Day.  I thought later that I should have asked Fats to autograph it. I was still catching up, however, with what was going on and where I was, standing next to a man whose work I had been listening to for over five decades.  I had no way of otherwise memorializing it either — no camera or camera phone —  but that was okay. We said our goodbyes and I walked out of the “house” (as opposed to the “HOUSE”) into a world which was much different than it had been just a half-hour before.

(c) Capitol Records, Inc. All rights reserved.

The world almost twenty years on from that day is also much different. One constant, however, is that Fats’ music remains timeless. His first single, “The Fat Man,” is considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record. Listening to it seventy years after its release one can hear Fats and the assembled musicians, under the direction of bandleader Dave Bartholomew, galloping into a previously uncharted musical territory. Then there is “I’m Walkin,” which, sixty years after its release, was licensed for a FitBit commercial. It’s a perfect pairing, given that one can’t sit still while listening to it. And of course there’s…but I need to be quiet and go away. I’ve prattled on too long. Anyway, that’s my brush with stardom. I’ve met a number of my idols since that time, but my meeting with Fats is in a class by itself.

Your turn now. Have you had any meetings with a major and famous influence in your life that you would like to talk about? I am going to attempt to stay uncharacteristically silent while you inform us, but I can’t promise anything. Thank you.



…and to all…


(c) 2017, Soho Press. All rights reserved.

I don’t as a rule like holiday-themed works of art. There are exceptions. Christmas Is a Special Day, an album of Christmas songs by Fats Domino, remains a favorite (in part because it was gifted to me by The Man himself, but that’s another story). I also listen repeatedly to Come On Christmas to Dwight Yoakam, and read The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg and “The Gift of the  Magi”  by O Henry a few times as well. Those are the exceptions to the rule, however.

I added one more holiday item to the list this year. It can be found in a recently published anthology titled The Usual Santas which is published by Soho Crime. I was immediately struck by the concept of the collection, that being to take the imprint’s roster of authors and commission Christmas-themed crime and thriller stories from them. It’s a wonderful collection from beginning to end. There is one story that stands out, however, that being “Chalee’s Nativity” by Timothy Hallinan. Tim writes a memorable series about Poke Rafferty, an expatriate American living in Bangkok, which is where “Chalee’s Nativity” is set. Rafferty does not poke his nose under the story’s tent, but Hallinan’s ever-keen eye for observation is fully and accurately street-tuned in this story about two orphans swept up onto the rough and dangerous streets of Bangkok at Christmastime. I have read this story every single day since I first encountered it in October, and will probably continue to do so long after this Christmas has passed. I won’t say that I haven’t complained about anything since I first read it, but this account of mind-numbing poverty, ill fortune, and charity of spirit has renewed my appreciation for what I have, from the moment when I wake up in the morning to the time when I close my eyes in the evening. If you get a chance in the run-up to the holidays please find a copy The Usual Santas and read it (as well as the other stories in the collection). You will be thankful.

Since we are talking about appreciation for what we have, please know that as we wind down 2017 that I appreciate you, and you, and yes, you for coming by this page and spending a few minutes with us here at TKZ and, if you are so inclined, commenting. It means a lot, more than you probably realize. I hope that all of us will continue to make your visit worthwhile.

Best wishes. See you in 2018, if the Good Lord is willing and the creek don’t rise.



In Media Res with LESSER EVILS: First Page Critique

Photo: “Left Behind” by Jon Hernandez, unsplash.com

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome to THE KILL ZONE First Page Critique!

Let’s all take a look at how Anon drops us into the middle of a plane crash with great aplomb in Lesser Evils:

Lesser Evils

The instant her helicopter touched down, Francine threw the door open, leaned out, and shouted, “Any survivors?”

She already knew the answer. For as far as she could see, fragments of her company’s plane littered barren, rocky terrain. In the waning-sunset gloom, scattered islands of yellow flames flickered in a huge sea of shattered metal—only the jet’s tail and two small engines intact enough to recognize. The destruction of her plane and the ten lives it had carried was absolute.

Francine suppressed a grin.

Absolute was what she’d planned.

Next on her plan was a bit of stagecraft. The sheriff’s deputy she’d yelled at stood less than a hundred feet away, but the scream of the copter’s motor as it powered down drowned out all other sound. She carefully stepped from the two person cockpit onto apple-sized volcanic rocks. Freezing in the copter’s windstorm, she pulled her jacket tight, stumbled forward on sloping ground, her pilot following closely behind.

When they reached the officer, she paused to catch her breath and almost choked on the sulfuric rotten-egg stench. The engine noise finally died. She pasted on a well-rehearsed look of anxiety and said again to the deputy, “Any survivors?”

He looked the two of them up and down. “Who are you?”

Francine’s pilot handed the cop a business card. “Ian Brack, Corporate Security, International Health Enterprises. This is Dr. Francine Duvaine. She owns the company and the plane.”

The deputy stared at her for a moment; then shook his head. “No one could have survived. Slammed into the caldera at over four hundred knots, a ton of fuel on board. Couple of folks at the tourist center fainted. Fireball was so big they thought St. Helens was erupting again.” He shook his head again. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“Please, you’re certain?” She made her voice crack. “No one?”

“No one.”

She closed her eyes, hung her head, and stood still for a few seconds. There—her work here was done. “Thank you, officer.” She began to turn away. “Thank you.”

“A real shame.” The deputy said. “Two crew and seven passengers.”

Francine whirled back toward him. “Seven?” She shot a glance at Brack and marveled at how he maintained a calm expression. Her pulse pounding in her temples, she took a deep breath. “You’re absolutely sure? Seven—not eight?”


I want the rest of Lesser Evils right now. I’m going to forego the usual nitpicking on it simply because the author does so much correctly in terms of storytelling. The pacing is just right. The narrative baits and sinks the hook from the first few words. This big fish was then caught and netted. Yes, there are a few typos (one near the beginning, one near the end, to name two) and if no one mentions them by close of business today (and we never close) I will jump in and note them but Anon, you are on the right track here.

Why do I love Lesser Evils? Anon drops us right into the middle of the action in a manner which entices without confusing. The introduction of two of the main characters is handled simply, but in a more interesting manner than just stating their names (which would have been fine). We know right away where the crash takes place.  There are a couple of surprises in the first page, those being 1) Francine’s hidden reaction to her company’s plane crashing and 2) the news that, apparently, not everyone died (and she’s not happy). It’s terrific. Those two elements will undoubtedly play out over at least the first few pages of the book and possibly beyond. It makes the reader wonder why Francine planned the crash, how she will be caught, when she’ll be caught, who will discover it, and the consequences. The audience will also be asking where that eighth body, breathing or otherwise, might be. I am assuming that later on Anon will explain to someone how Francine and Ian got there so quickly, where the plane took off from, and how Francine will keep from getting into trouble by landing in the middle of a crash scene, but what we have here is everything I want and could reasonably ask for in a first page: murder most foul; an intriguing villain, and a surprise or two, all wrapped in the same box without bumping into each other.

I wanted page two of Lesser Evils, then page three, and so on. I know I’ve got a good read in my hands when I feel that way. Go, Anon, go!

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet while I turn the comments, praises, and criticisms portion of this page over to our wonderful readers and visitors. Enjoy!