About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

First Page Critique: THE ARCANISTS

Artwork by Jean-Louis Grandsire, courtesy pixabay.com

Good morning, my friends, and thank you for visiting us at The Kill Zone today. Please join me in welcoming Anon du jour, who has bravely offered a submission entitled The Arcanists to our irregularly scheduled First Page Critique!

The Arcanists

“Remember, this isn’t a bust, so no ruckus,” he said.


“I mean it.”


“If things get tight, drop out.”

Grim waved behind her and strode toward the Gasping Grouse.

Not far off, a foghorn warded ships into port. A train rattled, tracking, like a harried squirrel, along the rails overhead.

Grim hunched her shoulders, shoved her hands in her deep pockets.

As she pushed past the wooden doors, a sulfur cloud of smoke and unwashed flesh wormed into her nostrils, wringing water from her eyes. She should have been used to this by now, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to cover her face with her sleeve.She kept her eyes low as she snaked between the bar and the tables, past rows of cardsharps and washed up sogs who didn’t know when to give in.

She found the informant gazing into a full tankard at the end of the room.


Grimhorn liked to settle her accounts with a lamb’s smile and a loaded spell deck in her overcoat pocket. The smile came free of charge. The deck was insurance.

You could never know many aces an informant was hiding in his vest, and Grim didn’t give two lashings if things got messy when they refused to pay up.

She leaned into the shadow of a brick wall and turned her collar up against the cold. Across the road, smoke and steam poured from the gaslit hub of the Gasping Grouse. Tonight’s quarry was a dream merchant with a penchant for fraud.

Grim’s partner, Gravehound, stood by as Grim flexed her mechanical left arm. He tossed his cigarette onto the cobblestone and stamped it out with his boot.

“Rusty gears?” he asked.

Grim shook her head. “Steelshifter’s metal. It don’t rust.”

“That isn’t cheap. How’d you get your hands on it?”

Grim smiled.

“You’re a piece of work,” Gravehound said.

“Don’t I know it.” Grim pulled a leather glove over her metal fingers. The steelshifter had fitted her just a week ago but the arm suited her almost as well as if she’d been born with it. And it had only cost her one month’s pay—after she’d bartered him down a little.

“I’m going in,” she said, patting the deck beneath her wool coat.

Gravehound clutched her arm.

She glanced back. His hair shone silver in the darkness, making him look far older than his twenty odd years.


Anon, The Arcanists appears to me to be aimed at the steampunk audience. Steampunk is not a genre that I reflexively reach for when looking for something to read, but a good story is a good story. Unfortunately, there are what I consider to be a couple of major flaw in your first page.

— Your story structure needs some work. You need some transition between the first section and the second sections of your story on this page. The transition 1) will connect them the sections and 2) advance the story.

Specifically, your first page is divided into two sections by a large paragraph break. These two sections appear to me to be alternative beginnings in a way.  They don’t really seem to connect and thus the story does not really advance. The first section begins with a person who we eventually learn is named “Grim” talking to… someone…for a few moments before Grim goes into a tavern called the Gasping Grouse and approaches an informant. Like Achilles chasing Zeno’s tortoise, however, they never quite meet up, at least on the page. We don’t know what the informant told Grim either generally or specifically in this section, and we don’t learn later. 

There is a paragraph break and things resume.  The second section has Grim, who we learn is also known as “Grimhorn,” and her companion, who we are now told is named “Gravehound,” once again standing outside of the Gasping Grouse. Grim is about to re-enter the establishment (apparently) with the intent of getting her quarry, who is referred to as the “dream merchant.” The section ends.

The first section should include some interaction between Grim and the informant, where the latter reveals where the dream merchant is, as well as a sentence or two indicating that Grim is leaving the premises. This will help you to advance the story to the second section. You can begin the second section with Grim and Gravehound discussing what she is going to do to apprehend the dream merchant and proceed accordingly.

— The second major flaw — and to my mind, the larger — is that what you have Grim doing makes no sense at all. If you go into a place to talk with an informant — particularly a crowded bar (you don’t go into a crowded bar to talk to an informant, by the way) — and the informant tells you that your target is at the bar, you don’t leave and then go back inside to get your target. If I go into a bar and talk to an informant who tells me, “Aye, the dream merchant is sitting at the bar, right over there, and is well into his cups!” and  then I leave, re-enter, and  grab the dream merchant, everyone, including the dream merchant, will know that my informant told me that he was in there. That’s a good way to lose an informant, not to mention one’s own eye. For your story’s sake, either put the dream merchant at another location (as revealed by Grim’s informant) or have Grim wait outside of the Gasping Grouse for the dream merchant and follow him for a couple of blocks before nabbing him.  

—  A third problem: when you begin a piece with two major characters having a conversation with each other you should name them both immediately. That way you get both characters established so that the reader will 1) have a better idea of who is saying what to whom and 2) begin to form a picture of those characters. You can then begin fleshing the characters out in the opening pages of the story.  You might also mention Grim’s  mechanical arm (even though you can’t flesh it out, heh heh) in the introductory paragraph. It sets Grim up as a badass from the jump.

There are a few other problems but those items are the story killers. All is not lost, however. I like the names and descriptions of your characters and the tavern (the Gasping Grouse is a terrific name for a dive bar) as well as your manner of describing the scenery. You set up mood and tone very well. It’s your substance and structure that need some work. Keep plugging away, Anon!

I will now attempt to remain uncharacteristically quiet and open the floor to all who are assembled and inclined to comment. Thank you, Anon, for your submission.  Keep moving forward.












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This Is (Almost) Halloween…

I know. Perhaps it is too early for me to be writing about Halloween. I’ve been seeing  merchandise for the unofficial holiday in stores since September 5th, however, so I’m actually behind the curve. Herewith please find my subjective list of Top Five frightening reads that will carry you through the next few weeks:

MISERY — I was given this newly published book as a present for Father’s Day 1987. I started reading it that afternoon and did not stop until I finished it that evening. Some dad, huh? Stephen King’s now-iconic tale of popular author Paul Sheldon’s extended visit with defrocked nurse Annie Wilkes — his Number One Fan — more than stands on its own merits. It makes/tops my list, however, because I had a relationship with someone very much like Annie, right down to her potentially dangerous mood changes and odd turns of phrase, the manifestation of which always preceded what I would come to call an “episode.” I read this book at least once a year, repenting at leisure and recalling the exhilarating sound of doom whistling by me at a near-miss.

THE SHINING — This tale about Jack Torrance, a struggling author with writer’s block the size of a Jersey Wall, and his family was already quite well known when it was adapted for a (lesser) film by Stanley Kubrick. I screamed twice while reading it. The first was during young Danny Torrance’s encounter with the girls in the hall.  To this day, when I am in a large hotel with a long, carpeted corridor, I think of Danny and the girls who wanted to play with him forever.The second was during the bathroom scene. I have, unbidden, remembered this scene at inopportune moments over the course of my adult life, with unhappiness ensuing. The book as a whole, however, is a terrific example of how to wring every bit of drama that can be wrung out of a single location.

THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty — This early 1970s novel was a potboiler for sure — and that is one of my highest compliments — but it is a cringe-inducing tale of demonic possession and the efforts of a heroic priest to save the life and soul of an innocent girl  which fed right into my Roman Catholic upbringing. My father, who spend serious and quality time in Seminary school, assisted in an exorcism and told me that Blatty’s account of possession was mild compared to what he witnessed. That might have been, but it is hard to believe that what (almost) Father Joe experienced was any more frightening than Blatty’s description.

‘SALEM’S LOT by, ummm, Stephen King — I have always enjoyed well-written vampire novels — there aren’t many of them — but there is a special place in my heart for this story of the Undead and love lost in a small town on its last legs. King’s second novel published under his own name is a textbook example of how to plant a slow, unnamable dread on the first page, nurture it, and grow it to full blossom stark terror. The television adaptation, with David Soul in the lead role, has its weaknesses but actually stands up quite well. A planned sequel was later incorporated into the Dark Tower series in THE WOLVES OF THE CALLA and SONG OF SUSANNAH but neither quite reach the atmospheric levels of fright found in this book.

THE BODY SNATCHERS by Jack Finney — I saw the 1956 movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers before I read the book upon which it is based. That august novel, although almost as old as I am, has held up much better than either myself or its film adaptation. Marketed as science fiction, THE BODY SNATCHERS is a paranoia-laden horror story about alien seed pods that land on earth and begin producing a duplicate replacement copy of each human being. You have almost certainly seen at least one of the three films based on the book but you can’t beat the source material on any level. Five-year-old mini-Me was also certain at one point that his parents had been pod-snatched. You might as well, but take a chance and pick up a copy of this classic if you’ve never read it.

You know what I’m going to ask now, I’m sure: what are your favorite horror/scary novels? And why? Thank you.


First Page Critique: CROSSROADS

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome, to our Saturday morning installment of FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE! We have here the beginning of a work titled CROSSROADS, so let’s cue up either the Sailcat album, Neil Young’s Comes a Time LP, or Cream’s Wheels of Fire to provide some background music and proceed:



Kelli Wade speeds along the 405 at night, wears her chopped jeans, favorite silk T, coffee-with-cream Chanel jacket, and cowboy boots.  She threads her way between a bus and rusty Toyota, leaning on her Harley.  Blonde hair streams straight out behind her; her helmet strapped to the side of the seat, unused.  Tears streak the sides of her face, momentarily blurring her vision of the dark traffic.

He was sleeping with that waitress-whore!  Did he think I wouldn’t find out?

She has keyed his car, front, back and both sides, before riding away from her ruined relationship.  And this, after getting word that Jackie, her college roommate, has been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.

“Up yours!”  The rage in her voice blends with the deep-throated growl of the cycle’s engine.  Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.  Did he think I was stupid, or didn’t he give a shit about my feelings?

She sits down hard behind her desk, alone, surrounded by darkness.  To keep her mind off murder, she begins to sort through stacks of paper, invoices, and case reports.  The normal day-to-day function of her job.

She takes a deep breath.  Is there’s any wine left in the fridge?

Dawn leaks in through the window blinds, sending streaks across the polished floor.  Other operatives of the agency begin to arrive to work, including her mother.


I’m predisposed to like CROSSROADS, Anon, because from the jump I liked Kelli Wade and how you are developing her from the jump. You get several things right. Naming your protagonist right out of the gate is a great move. You also put the reader in the moment from the first sentence by using the third person present narrative style. I especially like how you show your readers without telling them that Kelli is in Los Angeles: Taft Building + Route 405 + rusty Toyota (that sounds like award-winning author James Scott Bell’s hooptie to me!) = Los Angeles. Additionally, you show that Kelli does not take betrayal lightly. Revenge may be dish better eaten cold, but it’s pretty tasty in the heat of the moment, too. You paint a very clear picture of your character’s appearance and personality within just a few paragraphs, yet we don’t feel bombarded with information. That’s part of good pacing. The additional element of Kelli working with her mother is a nice touch as well.  More on that in a second.

Those are the positive elements. CROSSROADS needs to be cleaned up just a bit in a few places.


— First sentence: Kelli hits a tiny speed bump. She should be “wearing her jeans,” rather than “wears.” The third person present narrative is a good choice, but it has its pitfalls. I think you want a gerund there as opposed to a verb given that she already “speeds” along. Oh, and while you are at it: tell us the model of the Harley Kelli is riding. Enthusiasts love that information.

—  Third sentence: Let’s change that “her: her” to something else. I like to avoid using the same word twice in a row. And let’s get rid of that semi-colon. Here’s one way: Blonde hair streams straight out behind her. She has a helmet, but it’s strapped to the side of her seat, out of the way.


— First sentence: “She has keyed his car” …let’s change that to “She had keyed his car” since it takes place in the past, even if it’s just a few minutes ago.

— Second sentence: While we’re at it, let’s do the same thing and change “has been diagnosed” to “had been diagnosed” for the same reason.


— First and second sentences: These aren’t really incorrect but I’d like to see them a little shorter and tighter. Let’s use all verbs and make a couple of other changes. As things stand right now,

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp, swallowing back her pain and pulls up behind the Taft Building.  She chains her bike to a fat drain pipe and takes the service elevator to the sixth floor, shoving open the double doors of Sunset Investigations.”  

Let’s change that to

“Kelli skids off the exit ramp. She pulls up behind the Taft Building and chains her bike to a fat drain pipe. A service elevator takes her to the sixth floor, where she swallows her pain and shoves open the double doors to Sunset Investigations.”


— The next issue is a question to which I honestly don’t know the answer. It seems as though most businesses store their files and send their bills electronically.  Would a contemporary private investigation agency use stacks of paper or would Kelli be poring over files on her computer? I’ve converted almost entirely to e-billing, electronic documents, etc. That brought me up short, if only momentarily. Of course, if the book’s “present” is before 2007 she is almost certainly pouring over paper. It’s a minor quibble.


— “Is there’s any wine” should be “Is there any wine”…but I suspect that you know that, Anon. Otherwise, good proofing all the way through.


—Dawn leaks in…so…we’ve already been told that Kelli arrived at night, but was it really night or really, really early in the morning? I would like some sort of sense of how long Kelli has been sitting in her office before morning comes. This can be handled in a few words earlier in the text to give us some idea of what time of night Kelli arrived at the office.

— I like the surprise of Kelli working with her mom, but it’s a reveal that you might leave for just a little later. Or not. Also…as CROSSROADS is presently written… how does Kelli know that her mom has arrived? Is Kelli’s office door open and she sees her? Or is the door closed and she hears her? There are all sorts of ways that you can address this and you can do it by showing, not telling. As is in:

Three knocks rattle Kelli’s office door. Only one person in the office knocks like that. “Come in, Mom,” Kelli sighs.

These suggestions are made in the spirit of making a good first page better, Anon. I like the setup and I like your character. Please keep going with both.

I will now strive mightily to be uncharacteristically quiet while our friends at TKZ today offer their own observations and comments. Thank you so much, Anon, for submitting CROSSROADS to First Page Critique! And please don’t forget to circle back and let us know when we can see the rest of CROSSROADS!


Josecius and the Kitten

Photo by Bing Han on unspash.com

By popular demand (okay, I had trouble of thinking of something else): here is another story involving a cat. Parts of the story will sound familiar but it is nonetheless true. This tai…I mean, tale, also has something to do with writing, believe it or not. Please bear with me.

In 1984 living I was living in a townhouse apartment, the back of which bordered a small woods. My unit was the sixth in a block of eighteen, nondescript from the others and generally quiet.

I was awakened early on a football Saturday morning by my sons, ages six and three, who insisted that I get up immediately. There was a scary noise, they said, outside at the back door. I came stumbling downstairs.  They were right. There was an unusual noise, all right. It was the sound of an animal in panic or pain. Or both. I opened the door and found a small kitten sitting there, making a loud and repetitive cry as it looked up at me. I bent down and saw that it apparently had been dumpster diving for breakfast. A chicken bone had splintered and wedged in its mouth across its canines. I sat down on the stoop, picked the kitten up, and put it on my lap. It continued to cry but displayed no fear of me as I gently opened its mouth and carefully pried the bone off of its teeth.

The kitten, overwhelmed with gratitude, bit me and ran off. I required a series of rabies shots and was sick for several days and never saw it again. But that isn’t what happened. No. It got off of my lap, rubbed figure eights around me, and then promptly ran into my apartment when I went back inside. I gently retrieved the kitten (with the help of my sons and our very jealous beagle) and put it outside. An hour later it presented a dead mouse at the back door. A few hours later a somewhat chewed robin was left at the front door. A series of similar grisly gifts appeared at irregular but frequent intervals over the next couple of days. Fortunately, I had a friend who was looking for a nice kitten. He adopted it. The kitten grew into a cat and lived to the age of nineteen. I would once in awhile stop over to visit. When I did so the cat, upon seeing me, would disappear outside and show up a half hour or so later with tribute in the form of a mouse, chipmunk, or squirrel. It apparently never forgot me.  Nor have I forgotten it.

I wondered for a long time why the kitten showed up at my particular door as opposed to someone else’s. There were any number of residences from which to choose. Why mine? I finally came up with a possible answer. About fifteen years ago I started shaving my head. I decided it was time when my hair became engaged in a follicle race to see whether each one would fall out or turn gray first. I discovered that I had a birthmark shaped like a catspaw on the back of my head. Go figure.

What does this have to do with writing? It’s simple. You are the cat. Your mouth is the story. The chicken bone is that story point that you get stuck on and just can’t get past. Find someone — a person to whom you normally go to in order to ask advice who will give you straight, no-nonsense advice in a gentle way — and ask them what to do. Don’t knock on their door early in the morning, screaming in distress. Wait for a decent hour and approach them. If they are of help to you, leave dead mice at their front door. Or, if you are otherwise inclined, mention them by name in your acknowledgements when you get published. They will tell their friends who will in turn buy your book, or at least read it. Your friends want to help you; sometimes they just need to be asked.

That’s all I got. Tell us, if you will and/or can, a cute animal story where you helped a creature in distress. Include what occurred afterward. In the alternative, please tell us a story about how going to a friend who got your story or novel unstuck and on the right track. Thank you.



Don’t Let It Get Away

Photo courtesy Marko Blazevic on unsplash.com

I was driving very early on Friday morning down some slightly foggy, all but deserted streets of a section of my hometown known as the Short North. I was doing someone a favor, picking them up at the ungodly hour of 0-dark-forty to transport them to the city Greyhound Bus Depot so that they could catch a 5:00AM ride that would eventually drop them to New York. As usual, I was obnoxiously early, arriving a quarter hour before the agreed time; knowing that my prospective rider would be  late by about fifteen minutes I drove around a bit in the general area around their residence so that I wouldn’t be sitting idling in front of their apartment building in a no stopping zone.

I spent as a wee lad a number of Saturdays in a building on the outskirts of that neighborhood, long before the well-gridded streets which were then called “slums” became gentrified. My father managed the local branch office of a truck leasing company and for some reason believed that a regular Saturday trip to his office would encourage me to follow his example, instead of stirring up my inner brat resentment caused by my preference for Saturday morning television.. The office in the 1950s was full of cigar smoke — one of the company’s salesmen had a penchant for stogies — and absent of television, books, comics, or magazines. There wasn’t much to do. I was too young to do a credible brake job on an eighteen wheeler (and remain so to this day!) and as a result I spent most of my time hanging out in the garage listening to the mechanics tell jokes, some of which I understood but most of which I didn’t.  While most of the commercial buildings in that area have been torn down or rehabbed into tony apartment complexes or flavor of the month taverns that change owners, names, and identities every eighteen months, the structure which housed my father’s old office building still sits there and is still used for its original purpose by a different company. I like to drive by there when I am in the area. Sometimes I can almost imagine that I see my six year old self staring wistfully out of one of the office windows onto the street, yearning for escape. The primary attraction in my adult life, however, is the reminder that I don’t have to stop there and can go wherever I want whenever I want, rather than spending five hours in the building on a Saturday trying to figure out ways not to get into trouble. I guess my inner brat still resides within me. Age is also a factor. I was told by an elderly friend, shortly before he passed, that aging is like living in reverse: people start treating you like a child, taking away privileges and objects (like car keys and credit cards) and restricting your activities. Sometimes I need a reminder of what I have now, and what may be lurking ahead. Driving past that old office building helps.

I accordingly decided to kill some time by doing just that. Nothing much had changed from my last brief visit at the beginning of summer. I drove by slowly, looking for the ghost image of my young reflection, when I saw a quick movement out of the corner of my eye. I faced forward and quickly slammed on the brakes. A large tabby cat had picked that moment to dart in front of my slowly moving car. I didn’t hit it, which was good for the cat, but bad for the reason for its haste: it had a large rat in its mouth. The rodent’s anterior and posterior parts were draped resignedly over Garfield’s right and left jaws, riding up slightly on the kitty’s lower canines. The big hunter obviously wanted to get back to base and enjoy the meal before the adrenaline dissolved. Adrenaline in a prey animal’s bloodstream is like chocolate to a predator; it makes everything better. I watched the big hunter scurry off into the darkness and wished him godspeed.

Longtime Saturday morning visitors to The Kill Zone know that I love metaphors. I’ve been thinking about that cat all day, with the cat as the writer, the rat as the story, and the hunt as the idea. You’re the cat. Chase that idea down. Don’t let it go. If you do it just might scamper away, never to return. It might even be caught and eaten by someone else. Don’t fall into the old “no one will want to read this” trap of giving up on your concept before you’ve even tried to write it. All you will see is a blank expanse of page. All you will hear is the sound of wheels spinning. Unlike six-year old Joey, you can control your destiny. Put both hands on the keyboard and go where you want to go. Oh… if you’re driving, keep your eyes on the road. And when you cross the street, look both ways first, no matter what you are carrying, or how delicious it might be.  

As always, I’m curious…what was your least favorite adult-imposed task that you remember from your childhood? If you are inclined, please tell us what, and why. It might be a good starting place for something bigger. Thank you.



Photo courtesy Filip Gielda on unspash.com

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

Descending Darkness  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t fair, the town owed him.

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

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

It doesn’t always work, however:

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


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

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

Then we have:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…until he had achieved retribution.

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






Playing It by Ear

Photo by Dragne Marius courtesy unsplash.com

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

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


FIRST PAGE CRITIQUE: Cabal in Catalonia

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


JFK International Airport, Terminal 8.

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

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

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

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

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

“It would indeed.”

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

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

“So you got bumped, huh?”

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

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

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

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

A minute passes, and she’s still talking.

Two minutes. Giggling now.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we come to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Getting to Z Street

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unspash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




First Page Critique: SOME KIND OF DEAD

Photo by Marks Polakovs. All rights reserved.

Welcome, Anon du jour, welcome to The Kill Zone! Thank you for submitting Some Kind of Dead, your masterpiece in progress (and I mean that sincerely) to our First Page Critique:

Some Kind of Dead

By the time the dark blue BMW made a second pass past the bar, Andy Weber pegged them for amateurs. Unlocking the door he had just secured, he ducked back into the bar, keyed the alarm pad and then grabbed the cut-down Remington 870 that Gus kept below the register. Cops called it a “street sweeper” for good reason. Checking through the window for the car, he slipped outside and stood in the dark shadow of the doorway. As the sedan slowly rounded the corner at the far end of the block to make a third pass, Andy was ready for them.

The car drew even with the front door. Two mini-mag machine pistols began to emerge from the open back window on the driver’s side and Andy started unloading on the slowly moving car. First, the driver, to immobilize the vehicle, then the two passengers in the rear…one, two, three, and it was over just like that. The dead driver’s foot had jammed the accelerator. The Beemer, accelerating rapidly, entered the intersection against the light, right in the path of a fast moving gasoline tanker. The truck driver tried to avoid the car but he overcorrected and jackknifed the trailer, slamming into the BMW.” The tanker wasn’t as lucky. After hitting the car, it slid sideways through the intersection. The driver could see what was coming and jumped out, rolling to a stop. The tanker turned over, exploding in a ball of flame, engulfing three cars in the fireball. The driver stood, dazed, in the middle of the intersection.

Andy, satisfied that no one else was coming for him, picked up the ejected shells and returned the street sweeper to its rightful place under the bar. Resetting the alarm, he locked up and started off down the street, away from the carnage he just created. Tomorrow he would have to remember  to clean the shotgun and pay Gus for the three shells he used. “Amateurs”, he whispered to himself as he walked down the street.


This is simply terrific, Anon. I am predisposed to to love this anyway,, given that it sits solidly in my favorite literary genre — crime noir — but even after looking at it as critically as I could I found very, very little here with which to quibble. You draw the reader right in, hold their interest, create the proper dark mood and have the requisite mayhem and explosion which readers these days tend to expect right from the…well, from the first page. It reminds me of the paperback crime novels that I cut my reading teeth on back in the 1950s and which I read to this day. That said, I have a few things to mention in the hopes of making a terrific opening page a perfect one:

1) First paragraph:

— Let’s get everything parallel in the first sentence. The car goes around the block and Andy pegs “them” for amateurs. Who is them? Let’s change that to “By the time the dark blue BMW made a second pass past the bar, Andy Weber pegged its occupants for amateurs.”

— Wow, those guys really were amateurs. I know grade school cub scouts who could pull off  a better ambush than they attempted. I’m puzzled as to why they didn’t shoot Andy on the second pass. I assume they didn’t see him, even though he saw them. How about showing that to your readers like so (there are many different ways to this): “By the time the dark blue BMW made a second pass past the bar, Andy Weber pegged its occupants (see above) for amateurs.Gus’s doorway was the perfect place for observing without being observed. Andy had been able to clock the car’s occupants as they played two games of urban ring-around-the-rosy without their having a clue that he was watching. Unlocking the door…

2) Second paragraph:

— Let’s break up that compound sentence. Like so: “Two mini-mag machine pistols began to emerge from the open back window on the driver’s side. Andy stepped quickly out of the shadows, unloading on the slowly moving car.”

— …“ against the light, right in the path…” How about “…against the light, into the path…” instead?

— “The driver could see what was coming and jumped out, rolling to a stop.” I generally think of cars, rather than people, rolling to a stop (or when I’m driving, rolling through a stop).  I’d suggest this: “The driver could see what was coming and jumped out. He hit the ground and rolled until he ran out of blacktop.” Or something like that. There are a few different ways to write it.

3) Third paragraph:

Andy, satisfied that no one else was coming for him, picked up the ejected shells and returned the street sweeper to its rightful place under the bar. Resetting the alarm, he locked up and started off down the street, away from the carnage he just created. Tomorrow he would have to remember  to clean the shotgun and pay Gus for the three shells he used. “Amateurs”, he whispered to himself as he walked down the street.

You use the word “street” three times in the same short paragraph. Let’s eliminated the first and third ones. For the first, call the street sweeper a shotgun; as for the third: when Andy whispers “Amateurs” we already know he’s walking down the street because you just told us. You could end that paragraph with “Amateurs,” he whispered.”  (see below) and it would be just fine.

4) There are also a couple of typos:

Second paragraph: “ The car rolled twice, and came to rest on what was left of its tires.”  I suggest striking the comma in the sentence “ between “twice” and “and.”

Third paragraph, last sentence: Let’s stick that comma after “Amateurs” after the ‘s’ and before the final quotation mark.

Thank you again, Anon, for submitting this first page of SOME KIND OF DEAD. I sincerely cannot wait to see what follows. I will now sit back,  attempt to stay uncharacteristically quiet, and let our TKZ audience hold forth.