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.

Do What You Gotta Do

Photo: “Highway Landscape” courtesy George Bohunicky from unsplash.com


It’s kind of difficult to be an unpublished author these days. You have to start, finish, and get published, and each step is heavier than the last. Even worse, it seems like everyone else who tries it succeeds. Look at all of the books that are published every month. It seems like everyone has a book out but you.

That isn’t true, of course. What you see in bookstores, on websites, and other outlets for book sales comprises the tip of the literary spear. The point, or tip, as it were, consists of people with varying level of talent who absolutely, positively refused to take “no” for an answer, and who particularly didn’t take it from the familiar face they confront in the mirror every morning. You can’t control every step of the process, but you can control part of it, the part that is in front of you. It is like driving. You can’t control other drivers, road hazards, or unexpected engine failure, but you can control something, at least, as long as you keep your hands on the wheel and your foot within reach of the gas and brake pedals. Don’t surrender control to chance. Otherwise, you’ll never get where you are going. I, of course, have a real-world story about this, one that has nothing directly to do with writing but everything to do with what is possible in the face of adversity.

I had a part-time job working in a supermarket during my high school days in the late 1960s. I was on my break during a particularly busy Saturday afternoon when someone hesitantly came up to the table where I was sitting. He appeared as if he wanted to talk to me but didn’t quite know how.

I didn’t know him, but I did know of him. “Steve” had been a couple of years behind me in grade school where he resided at the nadir of the Mariana Trench of the social order.  I had heard stories about Steve’s family and home life. The sad punchline to all of those tales was that he and his siblings didn’t have squat, either materially or parenterally. His situation was so bad that no one picked on him, probably for fear that whatever bad luck mycobacteria clung to him would rub off. He was also incredibly shy in the manner of an individual who has the words  “kick me” indelibly inked on his forehead.

I hadn’t seen Steve in over four years and had never in my life spoken a word to him. I accordingly was somewhat surprised when he approached me. I nodded and said, “Hey,” the way one would when he sees someone he recognizes but doesn’t really know. Steve, without any further social dancing, sat down next to me and said, “My girlfriend’s moving.”

My initial and unstated reaction was So? I realized that such a retort would be kind of harsh at the least, so I bit it back and instead asked him, “Well, uh, who’s your girlfriend?” He said, “Tabitha.” I asked, as if I were in the middle of a knock-knock joke, “Tabitha who?”  “Tabitha Stanley,” he said.

Whoa. I had a year or so before briefly “dated” “Tabitha Stanley,” who had been in one of my classes.  We kind of slowly and carefully drifted together and then painlessly drifted apart without any apparent damage to anyone all within the space of a few weeks. We remained casual friends, speaking in the halls, but that was the extent of our contact. I hadn’t exactly kept tabs on her so I had no idea at all as to how she and Steve had connected. Since Steve didn’t attend our high school and would not have had the opportunity to observe us I could only guess that at some point in their relationship they had gone through the boring begats of their romantic histories so that 1) my name had come up as a footnote and 2) my reflection in her rearview mirror was more favorable than otherwise, given that Steve felt he could approach me, however uncomfortably, and tell me that she was moving.

I at first couldn’t understand why he was telling me. I quickly figured it out from his demeanor. He was asking me for advice. He looked as sad without crying as anyone I had encountered up to that point. I also, from knowing his backstory, figured that Tabitha was probably the best thing — maybe the only good thing — that had ever happened to him. Stalling for time, I asked him where Tabitha was moving. He named a city two states away. That was a much larger distance and potentially insurmountable distance then than it is now.

He just sat there then, waiting for me to offer him some wisdom. I don’t know where my advice to him was conceived but from somewhere inside my totally clueless, hormonally driven, eighteenish self, I told him to stay in contact with her. Remember that this was in the late 1960s. They couldn’t text or skype or tweet or, um, send each other selfies or emails over cell phones or computers. There were snail mail letters and landline phone calls. That was pretty much it. I  told him to write to her as often as he could and to call her once a week. He told me that his house didn’t have a phone. I told him to save up his quarters and use a pay phone, but to call her, to get a job and scrape up enough money to send her flowers on her birthday, and to send her a card once in a while. I also advised him that, when he got the chance and the ability to drive to where she lived, which was that city two states and a world away, he needed to do that, or, failing that, to take a bus. It’ll either work out, I told him, or it won’t. “If it does, you’ll know it. If it doesn’t, you’ll know that, too, and you can find someone else,” I said. “Either way, do what you gotta do.”

My break was over. I wished Steve good luck and went back to work. I never saw him again. I actually never even thought of him, or Tabitha, or the entire conversation until earlier this week, a half century on. I ran into a high school friend, an encounter which resulted in an hour of “do you remember” and “whatever happened to what’s-her-name.” Later that evening I started looking folks up on Facebook. I happened to think of Tabitha for some reason and checked to see if she had a page. She did. It features a picture of her with Steve. They’re married, living in that city two states away, and have at least one son, a man in his forties who seems to be an upstanding guy with kids of his own. Steve still looks shy, but he also has the demeanor of someone who won the Powerball at least once. So does Tabitha. I’m reasonably certain that neither one of them ever split the atom, wrote a bestseller, recorded a Top 40 hit, or amassed a fortune, but they look like they’ve done just fine, even if they had to overcome geography, background, poverty, and undoubtedly a bunch of other seemingly insurmountable obstacles to get to that photo on Facebook, some five decades on.

So. Tell yourself anything you want, but don’t look in the mirror in the morning (or any part of the day) and say that you can’t do something because you there are too many too manys in your life. There aren’t too many books, or too many obligations, or too many expenses, or too many obstacles in your life to keep you from doing what you want to do. There are just enough barriers in front of you so that once you overcome them you can appreciate what you have and get what you want. If you don’t believe me, think of Steve and Tabitha. Every word I’ve told you (except for their names) is true. If they can reach their dream, so can you.



If you are looking for ideas for your story or your novel, or characters to populate them, you need to join Nextdoor. Nextdoor is an online social network (isn’t everything, in some way?) which is organized around neighborhoods which are close to you. You just go to nextdoor.com, sign up, and you find yourself with access to all sorts of things, such as reports of suspicious activity, questions about what is permitted locally (and what isn’t), recommendations for everything from home power washing specialists and auto mechanics to tree trimmers and appliance repairmen, and lost and found (I’ll talk a little more about that last one in a minute). Once you’re a member of Nextdoor you get emails when someone posts about a topic such as an injured deer in their yard or a street closure, and you can answer back or post on a topic thread. You can also just read the threads that are posted, watching the occasional disagreement get contentious and then settle down a bit. It’s a bit like Facebook (Nextdoor’s less civil cousin) with its “like” button, except that Nextdoor has a “thank” button instead and for the most part forbids political discussions. After a bit of reading, you can dope out the personalities of your neighbors, whether close by or several streets away, and quickly determine what gets whose undies in a bunch fairly quickly. It is entertaining at the least and occasionally functions as a real-time and constantly evolving cozy mystery setting or, yes, a domestic thriller.  You really should check out the page for your area if you haven’t already.

About that lost and found topic that I mentioned earlier…folks in my area use that primarily for locating or reuniting lost dogs or cats who slip the tether and make a jailbreak for what they consider to be the greener pastures of next door or the next street. Such happened in my own immediate neighborhood last week. My backdoor neighbors have two small children and a dachshund. The dog, named Heika, is blind, but gets around quite well, doing that happy, bouncy doidy-doidy-doidy walking rhythm that dachshunds do. Heika occasionally wanders over to my back door, having learned that the sucker who lives there is always ready with a dog treat. The family’s grandmother is often there watching the two children, who are as polite and well-behaved as any two kids I’ve encountered recently, and I occasionally sit and watch them interact, wondering how the grandmother somehow manages to keep them all corralled.

So. Last Thursday night I was at a local coffeehouse waiting for my AA meeting to start and happened to see that I had gotten a Nextdoor email with the heading “Found weiner type dog.” I opened it and found a photo of Heika doing a Nextdoor star turn courtesy of my next door neighbor, who had found her wandering on our street. Heika had done a Papillon from her loving family one street over in the mistaken belief that the world beyond her marked territory was as nice and friendly as the world within. Dachshunds are the second cousins to beagles but they share that “clever but not smart” inclination to wander that gets them in trouble. I got on the phone, contacted my next door neighbor, contacted Heika’s mommy, and doggy and family were reunited within three minutes of Heika’s photo being posted. My meeting started and all was well with the world, or at least a little corner of it. The ability to do that justifies Nextdoor’s existence all by itself, to my mind.

Do yourself a favor and check Nextdoor out. Even if you don’t contribute you can get a really good idea of what your community is like, not to mention populating your works of fiction with myriad characters or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Maybe you’re already familiar with it. If so, do you have a story to share?



Mail in Your Future

Photo courtesy Nate Bell on unsplash.com

I occasionally like to use this space to inform the wonderful folks who visit here on a frequent or occasional basis about new tools, grand and small, that come to my attention, whether they are writing aids or life hacks or whatever. What I have for you today is something brought to us by the United States Postal Service (USPS) called “informed delivery.”

There are times that ebooks don’t satisfy the craving for a weighty, paperbound novel that you can throw at a spider without risking seventy dollars worth of plastic and electronics. The same is true of email. While email (and texting, its illiterate cousin) is quick and convenient, there is something about receiving physical mail that remains appealing, if you are throwing ninety percent of it into the paper recycle bin. The feature which I recently discovered allows you a daily, somewhat imperfect peek into the future of what you will be getting.

I am referring to “informed delivery.” It is free (ah! Now I have your attention!). It is also easy to sign up for it. Go here, see if your zip code and address are with the program (more are added on a daily basis), and set up an account. Within a day or two, you will start receiving a daily email from the USPS which will include embedded images of the envelopes which you will (well, which you should) receive in the mail that day as well as notification of any packages which will be (um, are supposed to be) delivered. It isn’t perfect. You will only see letter-sized envelopes that are processed through automated equipment. Sometimes something slips through that isn’t pictured and other times something that is pictured doesn’t show up for a day or two. For the most part, however, it works as advertised. It is particularly convenient for those of us whose mail delivery occurs so late that we need a flashlight to navigate our way to the box. Sometimes it just isn’t worth it and informed delivery will let you give you at least a hint of a thumbs up or thumbs down.

For those of you who have never heard of this and decide to try it out, enjoy. If you have been using informed delivery, do you like it? And for everyone: have you encountered a technological life hack recently that hasn’t received a lot of notice but that has been helpful to you? If so, please share if you are so inclined.

And thank you for stopping by and letting me be a part of your day and for being a part of mine.



(Photo courtesy FancyCrave from unsplash.com)

Hello, TKZers! Please join me in giving a hounddog-howdy to Anon, who has bravely submitted the first page of The Divinity Complex for our consideration. Anon, take it away!


Title:  The Divinity Complex

We have no choice when it comes to life and death. But sometimes others make the choice for us.

Chris Martinez pulled into Jimmie’s Travel Center early Sunday morning. He parked his blue Chevy Impala in the spot closest to the front door and walked into the convenience store. The entire journey from car to register should have taken no more than a couple of seconds. But it took Chris a bit longer because every few steps, he stopped and looked back at the car. It was apparent something was wrong…very wrong.

Randy, the thirty-year-old attendant on duty, watched from behind the cash register. He thought the customer’s behavior seemed odd, but then he reminded himself of where he was. Jimmie’s was right off interstate I-95 in South Georgia. It was somewhere between late Saturday night and early Sunday morning. Under those set of circumstances, it would have been odd not to see something out of the ordinary. It wasn’t a matter of if, just when.

When Chris arrived at the cash register, he looked Randy straight in the eyes. He cleared his throat as if he wanted to say something. But he couldn’t tell what was on his mind. Chris had to be careful of the words he chose. That was because the phone tucked in his shirt pocket was recording the conversation. Chris knew if he said the wrong thing something terrible would happen. He had no choice but to play by the script.

If he wanted to stay alive, Chris would have to rely on his ability to send a single telepathic message. Being a carpenter by trade and not a psychic, made the chance of success infinitesimal. But Chris had to at least try. It was his only hope.

Chris locked onto Randy’s eyes and concentrated. He screamed as loud as he could into his own head hoping it would get Randy’s attention.

Help me…Help me…Help me

Sweating and trembling, Chris handed over a twenty and two fives. All he could muster was a half-hearted but utterly fake smile. It was apparent something wasn’t right.

“30 dollars…on…uh…Pump…10,” Chris said. That’s all he could say. Anything else and there was a good chance someone would die. Chris looked at Randy again.

Help me…Help me…Help me

“30 on 10, you got it, buddy,” Randy responded.


Anon, I absolute worship road trip stories, particularly those that wander off the freeway and into parts that are at least initially unknown. You accordingly had me from the jump. There is a glaring problem that jumps out at me, however, and it leads to others. It’s fairly easy to fix, so let’s roll up our shirtsleeves and see if we can Chris back on the road.

The main problem that I had with your first page from The Divinity Complex is that the narrative point of view keeps shifting. You’re using the “third person multiple.” narrative. That means that you are describing the action through the eyes, ears, and thoughts of multiple characters in the third person. That is fine, but it gets confusing when you shift so quickly.  You go from Chris to Randy to Chris again in the course of three paragraphs and then seem to shift into third-person omniscient, where the third person narrator knows everything at all once. A number of books shift point of view from character to character throughout. There is nothing wrong with that at all. I recommend, though that at the beginning and for at least the first couple of pages you stick with one character’s point of view before shifting to another. Let’s start with Chris, as you did, and keep things focused on him and his perceptions:

— You step away from Chris before the first paragraph is even done. “It was apparent that something was wrong…very wrong.” Apparent to who? Whose observation is that? Randy’s? We haven’t even met Randy yet. Let’s drop that sentence altogether. Let’s cut that last sentence and use something like this, instead: “He couldn’t help himself.”

— You’ve introduced Chris so let’s bring Randy into the narrative through Chris’s perception. How about if we eliminate the second paragraph (but not throw it away altogether; more on that below) and go for something like this:

The doormat sensor went “dingdongdingdong” as Chris walked into the store. The cashier stood at the far end of it behind the counter, holding an open copy of Cavalier, eying Chris with a look of uneasy surliness. Chris thought that the guy looked to be about his own age, thirty or so. As Chris approached the counter he could read the name tag — “Randy” — pinned to his blue smock. Randy looked to Chris as if he wanted to be anywhere but where he was, which was just how Chris felt.

— Let’s take a look at those fourth and fifth paragraphs:

If he wanted to stay alive, Chris would have to rely on his ability to send a single telepathic message. Being a carpenter by trade and not a psychic, made the chance of success infinitesimal. But Chris had to at least try. It was his only hope.

Chris locked onto Randy’s eyes and concentrated. He screamed as loud as he could into his own head hoping it would get Randy’s attention.

— Anon, these don’t quite work. I get what you’re going for, but if Chris doesn’t have telepathic powers what makes him think he’s going to suddenly develop them? And the third sentence — “ Being a carpenter by trade and not a psychic, made the chance of success infinitesimal.” You don’t need the comma for sure. What if you change the sentence order and a couple of words?  See if this is better:

Chris wanted — needed — telepathic powers in the worst way. The problem was that he was a carpenter, not a psychic. He locked onto Randy’s eyes, hoping he could in some way communicate that he was in trouble without using words.

— I do like what you did here, telling us a bit about Chris — he’s a carpenter, which is interesting — so good on you. Keep doing that. Drop a few more breadcrumbs like that throughout the first couple of pages so that we get to know Chris and begin to empathize with him.

— Let’s drop down now to the seventh paragraph, the one that begins with “Sweating and trembling…” It ends with “It was apparent that something wasn’t right.” Again, where is that thought coming from?  Have we switched point of view to Randy again, who is looking at Chris “sweating and trembling” all over the place? Again, let’s keep the point of view with Chris while we change that last sentence a bit, using some of that second paragraph that we removed but did not throw away:

Chris was sure that Randy could tell that something wasn’t right with him. That didn’t mean that Randy would do anything about it. Jimmie’s was right off I-95 in South Georgia. Chris figured that it would probably be odd for Randy,   to not see something out of the ordinary at this godforsaken hour and at the back end of Bumfreak, Egypt. There was no help here, for sure.

Notice that I changed “somewhere between late night and early Sunday morning” to “this godforsaken hour.” The reason that I did that was that you already established in the first paragraph that things are taking place early Sunday morning. If you want to give the impression that it’s really early then give the time or mention that it’s “full dark” or even “no see” (as they say in the cotton fields).

— When/if you want to change the point of view to Randy you might want to remove Chris from the scene altogether. Have Chris leave the convenience store. Skip a couple of lines, begin a new paragraph or chapter, and switch the third person narrative from Chris to Randy. You can do anything from having Randy decide, yeah, that guy was weird even for the night shift, and calling the police, to pulling out a burner phone and calling an unknown person and saying, “Yeah, your pigeon was just in here, right on schedule. He looked REALLY shook up.” You can have all sorts of fun with this. Just make sure that it’s plausible.

I hope this helps, Anon. My rewriting is merely illustrative. There are several different ways to follow my suggestions and you should follow your heart. Seriously, I LOVE stories that involve gas stations off of the highway.  I want to love this one. I kind of already do, warts and all. I’m just not ready to buy it coffee yet, gaze into its eyes, and have it throw me over its shoulder and carry me off.

I will now make a valiant and probably futile attempt to stay uncharacteristically quiet while some of the finest folks in the world — our readers at TKZ — comment and offer additional suggestions. Thank you, Anon, for participating in our First Page Critique by sending us the first page of The Divinity Complex!



Inspired by a Good Deed


Photo courtesy www.clipartxtras.com

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy Michael Trecaso’s Mary Coyle Restaurant

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy Michael Trecaso’s Mary Coyle Restaurant

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




First Page Critique: Into the past with DEATH KNELL

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

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

Title:  Death Knell

Chapter One: The Visitor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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














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



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




…for the repose of the soul…

Photo courtesy Eberhard Grossgasteiger through unsplash.com

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




Communicating from Beyond the Grave

Photo courtesy sommi, unsplash.com

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

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

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

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



Gone, but not forgotten…First Page Critique: REMINISCENCE

Photo courtesy marina4848 from pixabay.com

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


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

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

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

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

My hand shook out of control.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Not Before Breakfast

Photo by LisaRedfern courtesy pixabay.com

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

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

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

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

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