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.

Leading Them to Water…

Photo by Kelly Sikkema, unspash.com

I recently gave three books to S., my fourteen-year-old granddaughter. S. has up until now not been a huge fan of reading. She flirted with the Warriors series — I think of those books at least twice a day, which would be every time “my” feral cat shows up the back door, waiting for me to feed him — and manga books,  but the works that have constituted the “required reading” part of her educational curriculum up to the present would, I’m afraid, divert just about any fledgling reader to computer games, YouTube, and King of the Hill reruns. My own experience is that when something that is supposed to be enjoyable becomes a requirement it becomes drudgery. 

Cover Copyright (c) Charles Scribner’s Sons. All rights reserved.

I have gently attempted on a number of occasions to get her interested in reading. No go. I therefore recently decided to get the reading camel’s nose under the tent of her interests and/or needs through non-fiction. “Needs” won. S. indicated to me that she had experienced some difficulty with a couple of school writing projects. I could have blessed her with a couple of instructive boring grandpa lecture but instead gave her On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I picked that one because she had at least heard of King and the book isn’t just about writing. King also goes into his life, his background, what drives him, what derailed him, what got him back on track, and how important other people were and are to the process. With regard to the last, King’s name may be on all of those book spines, but there would not be nearly so many of them if not for Tabitha King, his wife, who worked in bakeries when he was unpublished, scheduled interventions after he was published, and ministered to him during multiple dark days and weeks after his life-threatening injury. I handed On Writing to S. and she smiled with the good grace that a well-mannered child does when given clothes instead of a pony for Christmas. I then said, “The great thing about this book is that when you read it you can hear the author talking to you.” She smiled as if she had received that pony after all. Oh, On Writing does cover the act and art of writing, too. It has helped S. with her problem. Now she enjoys writing and reading. 

Cover Copyright (c) Nicholas Hughes. All rights reserved.

I did not stop there. I chose a second book to give S. because she is with increasing frequency getting out more on her own. Dad and Grandpa, for a number of reasons, won’t always be around to smite the varlets who might otherwise accost her as she innocently goes about her business.  I accordingly placed How to Be Your Own Bodyguard by Nick Hughes into her hands. Nick has handled security for movie sets and rock musician tours (among many other things) and lays his subjects and advice out in a very personable and businesslike manner with plenty of interesting accounts of practical applications of his considerable skillsets. The volume discusses such topics as situational awareness, threat assessment, and, if at all possible, trouble avoidance rather than confrontation when one is exposed to adverse situations.  I gave S. my copy, which includes a personal inscription from the author (full disclosure: Nick and I consulted on presentation issues during the writing of the book but it is all his. I don’t get a penny from the sales nor do I deserve any) and thus increased its worth in her eyes. 

Cover Copyright (c) Hachette Group, Inc.

The previous two books contain advice that S. can use now. The third is one that she can look at now and utilize later. It is Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 535 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams Brown. Imagine your eighteen-year-old self standing at the entrance of a long, dark, and unfamiliar tunnel and having a friend who is several years older than you standing at the other end, advising you of the pitfalls you will encounter as you take your steps into the unknown. That sums up this book. It covers topics such as how to apply for a job, work once you get it, find an apartment, get a pet, deal with friends, and handle money. It is a cheat sheet, if you will, for the pop quiz that is early adult life. I don’t agree with all of the author’s suggestions but she picks all of the right topics, including the ones that young adults don’t think of until they come calling with little or no warning. All of this advice is given in a friendly and appropriately humorous voice. The book won’t solve every problem S. will meet within a couple or five years but it will hopefully give her a leg up on them. As I often tell folks in another context, better to have and not need than need and not have.

S. is now reading and seems to be enjoying the process. She is also hopefully learning some practical things along the way. Mission accomplished. Have you ever given or recommended a self-help book or a novel to someone younger than you? Was it with the hope that they would start reading, or at least start enjoying it? If so, what was the book, and did it work?

Thanks once again for dropping by. It means a lot.



“We Know You’re Great…”

Photo by Jarkko Arjatsalo/The Leonard Cohen Files

I have an odd relationship with the songs of the late Leonard Cohen. If I am depressed I can usually put his music on shuffle and feel better after a while, such as two or three months. If I’m feeling fine and happen to hear one of his songs — and they are all over the place, in movies and television series and commercials — I go so deep into the gloom cave that I think I’m never going to crawl out. 

So it is that I recently came across a quotation that instantly became my all-time favorite, in part because it so perfectly describes, however indirectly, the desk-to-market process of bringing art — and that would most definitely include your book, my friend — to the masses, even in this age of do-it-yourself. 

Cohen was initially signed to Columbia/CBS  Records (“CBS”) in the mid-1960s and remained with it right up to his death in 2016. He spent a great deal of his early career acquiring a cult following (and almost universal critical acclaim) based upon a series of album releases that to this day sound either compelling, unique, unusual, or unlistenable, depending on whose ears are being used. CBS, to its credit, never dropped Cohen, even when the sales of his new releases — which were not huge until much later in his career —declined for several years in the run-up to the point when he became a household name. CBS nonetheless at one point declined (initially) to release one of his albums. Cohen in 1984 presented to CBS a collection of songs which was ultimately released by a small label — and somewhat later by CBS — under the title Various Positions. Walter Yetnikoff was President and CEO of CBS Records at the time. Yetiknoff, as a preamble to telling Cohen that his label would not be releasing Various Positions, famously said: 

“Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.” 

Various Positions contains a little four and one-half minute tune titled “Hallelujah,” that — like Cohen’s “Suzanne” a few decades before — eventually became to megachurch youth services (with a couple of the verses edited) and to funerals what “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival was and is to weddings. The song became so popular as a licensed property that Cohen at one point somewhat meekly asked that a moratorium be observed on placing the song in commercials, movies, and television. Various Positions also includes a deceptively jaunty little number named “Dance Me to the Edge of Love,” which is considered to be a modern standard. 

Let’s consider that again…“Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.”  

So what does that mean, exactly?

Trust me on this. Every stranger who looks at your work with an eye toward becoming part of the publishing process on your behalf — be it agent, editor, and publisher —  may personally be in awe of your work. They might well think that you’re great. The issue is whether you’re “any good.” That term is another way of asking/guessing whether your creation will sell enough to make whatever might and majesty the prospective agent, editor, or publisher can throw behind it be worth their while, “while” being their time, effort, and money. 

Such a conclusion is often — actually, almost always — a guess. The odd thing is that most of the time whoever makes the decision is wrong in all of the ways it can possibly be. Great books are turned down. Books that are worthy, or “great,”  are published and then ignored by the reading public. They are great books, possibly, but by the objective standard of sales numbers they are not “any good.” The “right” choices pay for the “wrong” ones which is how the whole industry, whatever it may be, keeps rolling along until it doesn’t.

This state of affairs doesn’t exist only in the arts. There are all sorts of products that seem like great ideas but never make it out of the design room for one reason or another. The ones that do aren’t always successful, either. I used to think that if I liked a particular product — Rice Chex cereal bars? —my preference almost certainly spelled its doom. I don’t think that anymore. I am totally convinced of it. 

So how do you get around it? You ignore it. You cannot really control it.  Focus on being great. Write your own story, instead of a variation of your favorite author’s, or what is “hot” right now. Shine it up nicely.  Get yourself an editing program to go through your work. This past Wednesday our very own Terry Odell discussed an editing program named Smart Edit that seems to fill the bill. Don’t rely entirely on that, however. Go through it yourself and then have two other literate, nitpicking people review your review for you to find what you missed. When you think that everything is as perfect as you can make it send it to a prospective agent or editor Then sit back and say the short form of the Serenity Prayer, which is “(Expletive deleted) it. Just (expletive deleted).” Keep sending it out. You will know soon whether someone thinks that you are any good. Just don’t stop. Remember Mr. Yetnikoff, who wasn’t sure if Mr. Cohen was any good after listening to an album with two songs on it that are still popular almost three decades later. While you’re waiting, remember what Audrey Hepburn said: “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible’!” Just so. Illegitimi non carborundum.

One postscript to this: I had the good fortune to see and hear Cohen perform in the early 1970s at a small club named The Smiling Dog Saloon in west Cleveland. I went to the men’s room between what turned out to be the two best sets of live music I’ve ever attended and was taking care of things when the urinals on either side of me simultaneously became occupied. I glanced  — yes, at eye level! — to my left and there stood Dave Mason (of Traffic), dressed entirely in bright red, grinning beerily back at me. I nodded, somewhat embarrassed for whatever reason, then glanced away to my right. There stood Leonard effing Cohen. A few seconds later we went to the sinks and, after washing up, somewhat uneasily introduced ourselves — not that the company I was in needed any introduction — and shook hands all around. 

I stumbled back to my table, bumping into chairs and people all the way there. The lady I was with looked at me when I finally sat down, smiled, and said, “Wow. What happened to you? You look like you got hit on the head. Did you, like, run into Leonard Cohen or something?” She laughed, took a sip of her beer, and said, “Oh. I heard someone say that Dave Mason is here…we should try to find him.” Done. And done. 

Thanks for being here once again. If you’d like to share your best acceptance or worst rejection, please do. It doesn’t have to be book- or even art-related. Let the games begin!


Making Do With Dollar Tree

All photos by Al Thumz Photography

Happy New Year! Thank you for being here. I will apologize in advance for the length of what follows. 

Between the economic impact resulting from restrictions imposed on businesses in reaction to COVID-19 as well as other factors — the term “starving writer” wasn’t pulled out of thin air — those of us who labor in the grammar mine might be having some problems making ends meet. What follows is a shopping hack called “Dollar Tree.”

I had never been in a Dollar Tree until early October 2020, having until that time succumbed to what was and is a certain negative cache attached to dollar stores in general.  To my surprise I learned last year that one was going to occupy the last remaining storefront in a retail center a few blocks from my home. My invitation to the grand opening in April 2020 was apparently lost in the mail and as a result I didn’t learn until a few weeks before Halloween that it had been open for months, yet another reminder that behavior resulting in getting fitted with an ankle monitor can really cramp one’s style.  

Dollar Tree has apparently been upping their game with new and larger stores located in (somewhat) better neighborhoods. The one near me has everything one could want or need, or a variation thereof. It has cleaning products,toys, school supplies,  canned and paper goods, health and beauty aids, and automotive and tool products. The newer stores have a card section, a “Snack Zone,”  and a refrigerated/frozen food case. The best part of Dollar Tree is that, unlike many stores with the word “dollar” in the name,  Dollar Tree means what it says. Everything in the store can be had for a dollar. Period. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Greeting cards are two for a dollar. There is also a shopping cart at the front of the store full of reduced-price — fifty cents — items that have been closed out. Everything else? One buck. This includes the Snack Zone where, in addition to chips, candy, and Little Debbie cakes, one can purchase fruits and vegetables (just kidding) (unless pork rinds count). The frozen food case features microwaveable breakfast, lunch, and dinner items as well as ice cream novelties (which of course can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). 

Not everything in Dollar Tree is a terrific deal. A box of baking soda is a dollar, but one can buy that in a supermarket for almost half the price. Boxes of theater candy are pretty much a dollar everywhere (except, interestingly enough, at a theater, even before they all closed), as are Arizona teas. There are, however some interesting finds in a Dollar Tree. The stores also now seem to be just about everywhere so if you want to read this as you walk through the aisles of one near you, please do so. What follows is a random sampling and review of what you can find, and what you should get or avoid, at a newer Dollar Tree.

— Golden Crust Jamaican Style Puffshell sandwiches:

      The good: Everything. I’ve never seen these in a store outside of corner markets in New York until now.

       The bad: Absolutely nothing at all.

       Bottom line: Dollar Tree sells a few different varieties of these which, like Imperial Garden Egg Rolls (see below) all taste somewhat similar. That said, the Jerk Chicken is my favorite. Microwave it for two minutes and you can call it lunch or dinner, or both. Caveat: I don’t recommend eating one within twelve hours of a first date, second date, assignation, job interview. wedding, or any anniversary celebration before the tenth one. 


— Motor oil:

      The good: If your ex- asks you to top off their oil when they come over to pick up their stuff, this is what you want to use. 

       The bad: You don’t want to use motor oil that costs a dollar in your own auto unless you have a car like Fred Flintstone’s. 

        Bottom line: No.

— Zapp’s Potato Chips(!): 

      The good: My favorite potato chips! Voodoo Style! For a dollar! And I didn’t have to drive to Louisiana to get them!

       The bad: None!

       Bottom line: Life is good!

— Power steering fluid:

     See Motor oil, above.

— Colorform playsets(!!!):

      The good: COLORFORMS! For a buck! I didn’t even know Colorforms sets were still made. If Dollar Tree had a security guard, he would have been called to Aisle 3 when I initially found them. The discovery caused me to break out into my James Brown “goodfoot” dance. “YOWWW! HUNH! GOOD GAWD!”

       The bad: Colorforms doesn’t make a Bettie Page set, but that isn’t the fault of Dollar Tree. 

        Bottom line: Colorforms! What more can I say

— Folding Knife: 

      The good: It is very sharp and surprisingly smooth when opening and closing. 

       The bad: The blade is short.

        Bottom line: That isn’t a knife!

Now…THAT’S a knife!

— Copper Moon French Roast Coffee (Four K-cups):

      The good: Everything. 

       The bad: Nothing. 

       Bottom line: I’m kind of a coffee snob. I usually only drink the Cafe du Monde, Community Coffee, or Bustelos brands. This, however, was surprisingly good. It has a rich, smooth flavor and, if you melt a Hershey’s kiss in it, a deep chocolate profile.

— Healthy Chef Canola No-Stick Cooking Spray:

      The good: I wasted only one dollar on it.

       The bad: I wasted a whole dollar on it.

       Bottom line: It didn’t work at all. I actually thought about taking it back and getting a refund, but I would have looked like a cheap***. 

— Assured Men’s Shave Cream Regular:

      The good: It didn’t make my face fall off.

      The bad:  It didn’t make my face fall off.

       Bottom line: I intended to buy a five-ounce can of Barbesol but the 12 ounce can of Dollar Tree’s house brand for the same price was too good to resist. It has a nice scent to it but the lather is a little thin. It’s good enough, however, that I might buy it again. 

—”Tactical” flashlight:

     The good: It is actually bright enough to use for ordinary purposes.

      The bad:  It is not a tactical flashlight.      

 Bottom line: It fails to meet the definition of a tactical flashlight in durability, size, ability to be dual-purposed as a self-defense instrument, and luminosity.Throw it in the glove box of your car as a substitute for one that should already be in there. Batteries — 3 “AAA” — are not included. The batteries actually cost more than the flashlight, unless you buy the batteries at Dollar Tree.

— Imperial Garden Egg Rolls:

The good: They are big and they are very tasty. Get a jar of Chinese hot mustard (not sold at Dollar Tree) and you’ll be all set to bypass Uber Eats for the night. 

The bad: all of the flavors — chicken, pork, shrimp, and lobster — kind of taste the same.

Bottom line: These are not foodie quality but they get the job done. Dollar Tree could probably open stores near college campuses and turn a profit just on the sale of the egg rolls to drunken students on weekend nights or during exam week.

— Croc’s Refillable Butane Candle Lighters:

The good: The price.

The bad: None. 

Bottom line: I learned recently that it is perfectly legal to buy and possess a flamethrower in forty-nine states (Maryland is the only poody-pants). While I am waiting for mine I can practice with this lighter which is as good if not better than the ones that cost two dollars and up at other stores. It eschews the two-step operation that most use, utilizing instead the equivalent of a double-action trigger pull that you’ll find on your better .38 Special revolvers. I thought about buying a bunch of them (the lighters) as Christmas stocking stuffers for the neighborhood children but tamped down the urge.

— Handsaw:

The good: It’s great if you need one just to trim a couple of tree branches and don’t own a chainsaw.

The bad: At the price of one dollar it should not be considered as a long-term tool for you. It can, however, be replaced rather easily and inexpensively.

Bottom line: This is part of “Tool Bench,” Dollar Tree’s in-house tool line.  The irony is that the Dollar Tree where I purchased the saw is located in the former storefront of a Sears Hardware store. 

— Greeting cards:

The good: Hallmark actually makes a line of greeting cards branded “Heartline” (I wonder if I could collect a quick settlement for trademark infringement using a “confusion in the marketplace” argument?) that 1) are two for a dollar and 2) don’t have the price on the back. They’re nice, too. None of my children could tell the difference this Christmas.

The bad: Your in-laws might buy you the same card you bought them and thus will know how much you paid for it. 

Bottom line(s): 1) It actually costs more to mail the card than to buy it. 

2) Sending your ex- a birthday card from Dollar Tree is like saying “God bless you!” in Nashville or “Have a magical day!” at Disney World. 


The good: Cardboard boxes of obscure horror and thriller movies on DVD.

The bad: Cardboard boxes of obscure horror and thriller movies on DVD. 

Bottom line: I had not heard of most of the movies or of the actors in them. If you are a fan of schlock horror I would recommend going to Dollar Tree for no other reason than to pour over what they have for sale. The boxes are usually in the school supply and toy aisles.

I invite you to visit and walk around Dollar Tree to see what else they have. Heck, if you find yourself at the one at Sunbury Road in Westerville, email me. I’ll drive over and give you a personal tour. I am willing to wager that you cannot walk out without spending at least ten dollars while delighting in doing so.  A number of major brands, including Colorforms and Hallmark, seem to be offering products of a size that can be sold at the Dollar Tree price point. A Pepsi salesman was in the store during one of my (daily) visits and advised that the chain is one of their major clients.  I also read somewhere that the folks who run Dollar Tree want their customers to be surprised by what they find every time they walk in the store. Mission accomplished. I found within their book section a couple of mass market paperback collections of Elmore Leonard western short stories. They were priced at a dollar each. They were not marked down or remaindered or anything. They are part of a small but growing line of HarperCollins paperbacks targeted for Dollar Tree customers.

Oh. I also have to compliment the store associates. They actually seem glad to see customers walk in and are familiar with the inventory and where it is located. One of them was interested when I told her that I was going to post a blog about Dollar Tree. She has asked me a couple of weeks why she hasn’t seen it yet. Here it is (Hi, Holly!). Another laughs at my jokes on a regular basis and on cue (Hi, Maribeth!). They treat me so well that I may go there for my birthday this year. After all, party supplies such as tablecloths, hats, those packs of ever-important “thank you” notes, and Dolly Madison Zingers are just a dollar. I even put a visit to Dollar Tree into my WIP, once I was able to tear myself away from playing with my Jurassic World Colorform set long enough to get some writing done. The best part of all is that, even after you get that huge publishing advance and license your work for a Netflix project, you will still want to shop at Dollar Tree.

If so inclined, please tell us your favorite store(s), why they are your favorite, and whether you plan to insert them into your stories. Thanks again for being here. Be well.


Getting Through It


Source: passionatepennypincher.com

I have been working on a couple of different posts to offer as my last for this year. One has the working title of “Prepping for the Zombie Apocalypse at Dollar Tree.” The other is tentatively named  “The Two Best Books That I Will Probably Never Read. Neither Will Anyone Else.” You may see one or both of those next year. What happened in the here and now was that the rubber was meeting the road as far as decide-and-finish was concerned when I came across the chart that you will see above. Something told me that it was more important to share it than the bits of wisdom and whimsy that I had planned. Things blossomed from there and it was off to the races. 

It was and is a part of my program for embracing the suck that is 2020. The military term “embrace the suck” can be distilled to a simple admonition. That would be best described as acknowledging that a situation is bad and dealing with it, going over it, around it, or through it. That’s a bit of an oversimplification but close enough for rock ‘n’ roll. 

2020 will not go down as a wonderful year. It thus gave us, each of us, a wonderful opportunity.  It gave us the chance to embrace the suck. I don’t know anyone personally who died of COVID-19 but I do know several people who contracted it and many, many more who thought they had it and did not but were sick with something else. Virtually everyone I know experienced some adverse secondary reaction as a result of it. Let me count the ways. Isolation. Diminished income. Loss of jobs. Domestic problems. Each of them continued to get up every morning and did what they needed to do, went to bed, got up the next morning, and did it all again. They embraced the suck. I daresay that if you got up today and are reading this then you are doing the same thing. Woody Allen is credited with observing that ninety percent of everything is showing up. You showed up. You zoomed meetings and read and wrote and worked and shopped and made meals and probably helped others at some point. The sun came up every morning and so did you. Good on you. 

I have mentioned the late Miles Davis a number of times in this spot. Miles was a complicated personality who often got in his own way but he was an immense talent whose music still sounds groundbreaking and in some cases ahead of his time three decades after his death. His music wasn’t formulaic but he had a formula, which was “Play what you know, and play above that.”

That statement is applicable to life in general, and particularly life right now. For writing, it’s everything. Aim to write the best that you can every day, and write above that. It’s true of life, too. Live as best as you can, and then strive to live to do better. You’ll fail frequently, but you’ll succeed too. 

That brings me to the chart above which comes from the good folks at passionatepennypincher.com. I don’t reflexively think of food banks during the year, but every December our local one has a food drive. Their goal for this year’s drive — again, a tough year for everyone — on December 5 was to collect thirty thousand pounds of food. They collected sixty thousand pounds. In one day. A bag at a time. If you are inclined and you are financially or physically able to do so that reverse Advent chart above is a great guide to what you can do to do live as best as you can, and maybe a bit above. Or you can help someone out, be it a stranger or a neighbor, in some other way. It doesn’t have to involve a transaction. It can be as simple as an effort to give someone an extra smile or a hello or an assist. You can communicate a smile through a mask, by the way. It’s surprising but true. Even I, who really, really does not care much for people as a group, can do it. 

Oh, yeah. The Humane Society. They take care of my favorite people. If you like animals but can’t have a pet most humane societies are begging for folks to come in and interact with the animals there. I can’t do it. The last time I did I had a meltdown because I couldn’t take them all home. I contribute in other ways instead. One does what one can. Please.

Bottom line: be well, and embrace it all. Own it and conquer it. Write, read, watch, be good to yourself first, and then someone/something else. Be happy amid the noise and waste. 

Chag Urim Sameach, Merry Christmas in two weeks, and Happy New Year in three. I will see you back here on January 9. Thanks as always for being here. 

Slow Down. Please.

I had a different post (almost) ready to go. It is interesting, but a bit long. I thought that many of you might still be emerging from food comas two days after Thanksgiving and accordingly would appreciate something short with a striking visual and a gentle reminder.

And here we go!


The foregoing incident, as near as I am able to determine, took place in 2017 in a multi-goods warehouse in South Africa. Videos of similar occurrences in a cheese storage facility in England in 2015 and a Russian facility in 2017 are also online. This one, however, is the one to which I keep returning. 

We can learn a number of things from this video. Most are important throughout the holidays in a variety of settings but apply throughout the year as well:

— There is a reason that patience is called a virtue.

— Life, like football, is a game of inches.

— “Maximum load capacity” is not a suggestion.

—  When given a choice between “set-up” and “clean-up” always choose “set-up” and leave before “clean-up.”

— Never turn your back on the FNG (an acronym for a term meaning “the new employee”).

I hope that you continue to enjoy your weekend. If you are feeling overwhelmed, please try to remember that this too shall pass. The same, alas, cannot be said of the poor soul who found second gear on the forklift. Once. My understanding is that he did live through this but is working in a different occupation.

Have you ever witnessed a catastrophic incident? Did it provide you with a spark or element for a story?

Enjoy and be well. And thanks for stopping by today on one of the busiest weekends of the year.

Author/physician Steve Hooley will be taking over the alternate Saturday slot commencing next week on December 5. He is a terrific guy with multiple talents and will give us plenty to think about. 


A Space Without Answers

It has been by any standard a tough year. My cheery suggestion to folks — that any day above ground is a good day — still applies. So does the axiom that that tomorrow is the future, and yesterday is the past, but today is a gift, which is why we call it the present. Some may disagree, but everything benefits from perspective. Things can always be worse, as what I am about to write about demonstrates.

The situation that I am about to describe is still developing even as I sit at the keyboard. I may update up at some point in the future, depending upon what occurs. It has all of the elements of a classic mystery. What cannot be forgotten or denied is that it is steeped in tragedy, regardless of what, if anything, is ultimately found to have occurred. 

A Westerville, Ohio resident named Emily Noble was reported missing by her husband Matt Moore on the evening of May 25, 2020. Matt stated he and Emily had been out celebrating Emily’s birthday the previous night before returning home. Emily, Matt reported, was not at home when he awoke the next morning. Her possessions, including her keys, car, cell phone, and credit cards, were all that remained of her.

The matter might have ended there. It occasionally comes as a surprise to people that, all other things being equal,  there is no law prohibiting an adult from upping sticks and leaving their home either temporarily or permanently without notice. An absence of this type does not automatically lead to subsequent law enforcement investigation. Friends of Emily, however, vociferously argued that such a course of action — leaving without notice — was unlike her. Emily was gainfully employed and maintained regular contact with relatives and many of her aforementioned friends. The items which she left behind would have been things that she would have taken with her if she were undertaking a planned and/or voluntary absence. 

News of Emily’s disappearance quickly spread and led to conjecture on social media. It was argued that Emily if she were alive and able to do so, would have noted the hue and cry her disappearance generated and would have contacted someone if only to assure them that she was fine and had simply chosen to go away.  

Those circumstances initiated as thorough an investigation as has ever been conducted in this area. Westerville police searched Emily’s home but found no indication of foul play. Video footage from the area around her home was reviewed. Police searched a wooded area near Emily’s home that she was known to frequent as well as an area of several blocks where she walked.  The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, volunteers, drones, and cadaver dogs assisted. An out-of-state group with experience in disappearance matters was brought in as well. Surveillance camera footage in the area was reviewed. Emily’s friends also posted signs throughout the area offering a five-figure reward for information about her disappearance.  

All was for naught. It was as if Emily had vanished into the ether without sign or warning. Vigils were held. Friends and volunteers continued to search. Accusations on social media regarding who might be responsible for her absence were made by friends, acquaintances, and at least one of Emily’s family members. 

 Early in the evening of September 16, 2020, a body was found in the wooded area near Emily’s home. The body was in a state of decomposition such that the age, sex, and facial characteristics of the deceased individual could not be identified. Given that the wooded area is not a large one — less than half of a city block — the discovery of a body there was puzzling, particularly since the location where the corpse was found had been searched at least three times, with the first time being within a day of the report of her disappearance. 

The body was tentatively identified as Emily’s through dental records on September 22, 2020. That identification was confirmed by DNA  results on October 27, 2020. It was also noted that there had been decomposition of Emily’s body at the site. 

The investigation continues. There has been some signal chaff generated by conjecture. The majority opinion — still not confirmed at this point in time — is that Emily was murdered. Some individuals have not been shy about hazarding a guess as to the doer. There is also the possibility that Emily was the victim of a hit-and-run driver, given that the wooded area is adjacent to a moderately busy street. The problem with that theory is it presupposes that Emily’s body lay where it was, undiscovered, for almost four months despite multiple searches of the area. That is possible, but not probable. Emily also might have suffered a fatal heart attack and died suddenly as a result. There is the same problem with that theory as there is with the hit-and-run scenario.  Everyone has their guesses and opinions (as do I) but broadcasting them does not help and, at least with one scenario, has the potential to hinder any justice which might otherwise be done. 

There unfortunately remains the very real possibility that what happened may never be known. Decomposition might be such that the cause of death cannot be conclusively established. If Emily’s body lay where it was found from late May to late September she was exposed to warm, humid weather in an area teeming with insects, carnivorous wildlife, and the like. It would seem to be quite a challenge for forensic investigators to establish whether there is sufficient evidence to determine if a crime was committed. That issue is well outside of my skillset and closer to the wheelhouse of fellow TKZers Garry Rodgers and Steve Hooley. 

What is known for certain at this point is that with Emily’s absence there is going to be an empty seat — a space without answers — in one or more dining room tables going forward. What I have described makes for an interesting story, particularly for those whose reading interests include mysteries and true crime of the solved and unsolved varieties.  The emotional component occasioned by that void is far deeper and more important. 

Yes, it has in many ways been an uncertain year, but if you don’t have an empty chair at the table as you gather to celebrate the season, in whatever form that takes, you’re ahead of the game. I think so, at least. 

Happy Thanksgiving. See you next Saturday.

A Neighborhood Story

The painting at the top of this post was made for me by a young lady who lives next door and her best friend who lives on the next street.

There is a backstory, of course. 

I have lived in my current neighborhood for 26 years and counting. It has changed over that quarter-plus century from having lots of kids running around to almost none at all to…well, lots of kids again. It’s a better place with the children, who I’ve described recently. One of the reasons is that the presence of children usually puts dogs in the mix as well. That brings us to Sadie. 

I’ve mentioned before in this space that the dogs in the neighborhood have me trained. Felix, the feral cat who I have dubbed “the master of the kitten face,”  still shows up as well. It is Sadie, the dog who lives next door, who has things down to scripted performance art. 

It took a while. Sadie was rescued by my very nice and patient neighbors almost two years ago. Sadie took a short time to adapt to her new and wonderful living situation. Once she did, Sadie seemed to be in constant motion for almost a year, restrained only by the Invisible Fence that her family installed for her. I would occasionally toss her a treat (okay, once a day…well, sometimes, twice a day) and she gradually got used to that when she realized that there was no downside to it. 

Then it got interesting. We started a daily performance that goes something like this. She barks and I come out. I walk over and tell her that I’m not sure if I have anything for her. I pull open my empty pocket, at which point she looks at my other pocket. Did I mention that she is a very smart dog? I then reach into my other pocket, but before pulling the treat out I tell her that it is MY treat, the only one I have. I let her know that she can’t have it but that because I love her I will let her sniff it. I usually only get the treat halfway out before she snatches it (she has never so much as grazed even one of my fingers) and takes off running, with me in pursuit, yelling “Hey! That’s my treat! Come back here!” Sadie gleefully runs around the house, reverses course, bumps me as she runs by, evades my grasp, and in the meanwhile just tears the stew out of her family’s garden, mulch, and the like. They patiently (well, usually patiently) sweep it up and let Sadie (and me) have our fun. The artwork doesn’t just attempt to capture the moment. It nails it perfectly, right down to the grin Sadie would make if she had the right facial muscles to do so.

This activity has attracted an audience among some of the neighborhood children, who laugh as hard the next time they see it as they did on the first. I suspect/hope that, as a result of this repetitive spectacle they seemingly never tire of, they will grow up reading thrillers and maybe even writing them. All of the elements of a good story are there. There is conflict (yes, it’s made up, but it’s still conflict), a McGuffin —I doubt that when Hitchcock coined the term he envisioned that the sought-after object that triggered the action in a dramatic work could ever be a dog treat, but it’s a funny world — some explosions (mulch really goes flying), a sympathetic character (it isn’t me), and a resolution that makes everyone happy (Sadie keeps the treat and eats it). A story at its foundation can be that simple. 

Those of you who count yourselves as adults or grownups (notice that I exclude myself from both categories) might consider this account to perhaps make a great “beginning reader” storybook for young children. I can see an editor sending it back to an author with instructions to “grow” the story a bit. It would be easy, however, to quickly turn this into an adult 1) mystery, 2) thriller, or 3) horror novel. Examples follow. 

Mystery: Sadie comes running back around the house carrying the severed head of a neighbor nobody likes (I have a model for him, too!) Whodunit? Suspects abound. Many suspects.

Thriller: Sadie doesn’t come back. Our intrepid treat tosser starts looking for her, finds her invisible fence collar on the ground, and runs between houses over to the next street, looking for her. Two guys are trying to get her into their car. Fisticuffs ensure. Sadie is rescued, but the treat tosser finds himself in trouble and doesn’t know why. Little does he know that the fate of the world is at stake!

Horror: When Sadie runs around the house, the assembled children run in the opposite direction laughing in delight. Then the treat tosser hears the kids screaming, and Sadie barking and growling. The barking cuts off with a high-pitched yelp and the screams of the children intensify then drop off.  The treat tosser runs around the side of the house to find a one-armed woman holding a dripping machete and advancing toward him at speed. 

I’m so glad that you like animal stories. 

The ultimate lesson here is that you can take just about any situation, no matter how joyful, and turn it into something dark in a heartbeat, setting up a conflict that begs for resolution. 

Do you have any daily rituals — peculiar to your own life — that are seemingly ordinary but that you could use as a jumping-off point? Please share if you wish.

I have two things before I go. Here for your enjoyment is a video of our neighborhood star getting her reward for bringing so much joy into the hearts of all:


The second is that I will be here for the next couple of Saturdays. At some point after Thanksgiving — we anticipate December 5 — we will have a doctor in the TKZ house when physician and author Steve Hooley joins us on alternate Saturdays. I assure you that the wait will be worth it. 

Thanks again for visiting.


The Churn of the Screw Redux

(Greetings to those of you who were not expecting me to be here today. You do not have the wrong Saturday (can there ever be a wrong Saturday?). Mark Alpert has moved on to other things and will be devoting his talented wordcraft to his adult and young adult novels, which we ask that you continue to seek out, purchase, and read. In the meanwhile, I will be filling in for the foreseeable future (this week, anyway) as well as posting on my usual spot on alternate Saturdays. Onward! Joe H.)

Some of you may recall that last year I had a close encounter with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). I wrote about my experience in a post for TKZ titled The Churn of the Screw. I had another interaction recently for a different reason. and will share the additional knowledge that I gained. I feel that it is pertinent for this space since, if you are writing for income and actually earn a bit, you can expect a little extra attention from the IRS as does anyone who is engaged in self-employment. 

My latest experience began with the receipt of a letter from the IRS on a Saturday. There apparently was some issue that required me to prove who I am. I was instructed to call an 800 number between 7:00 AM and 7:00 PM (PST) even though Daylight Savings Time was still in effect for another couple of weeks. The author of the letter also apparently took it for granted that I would know that those hours obtained only from Monday through Friday. Just for grins and giggles I called it anyway — on Saturday — and was told via voice recording that the office was closed. Fair enough. 

I called back on Monday, at 7:00 AM (EDT) just to see if the PST the letter mentioned was in error. It was. I got a recording instructing me to hold. My call was ultimately answered after thirty or so minutes by a somewhat abrupt lady who exhibited some umbrage with me because I asked her to repeat her name and ID Number twice. I wanted to ask her to get the gumbo out of her mouth and slow down but I did not. I instead told her that I was a bit hard of hearing and was having difficulty understanding her. 

Taxpayer Tip #1: An IRS representative is required to give you their name and ID Number. Write it down. If you don’t understand it, whether because of the line quality, hearing issues, or other problems, ask politely to have the information repeated, even if it irritates the representative. It will also slow the rhythm of the conversation down a bit in the event that the representative is inclined to pepper you with quick questions or otherwise rush you through things.

I then advised the representative that I received a letter and gave her the letter’s form number. She told me that the database for that information did not open until 8:30 AM and to call back then. She then hung up. I tried to call back throughout the day but after a two-minute greeting and instructions to “Press 1”  was told each time that due to high call volumes all representatives were busy and that I should call back. Click. I did connect at one point mid-afternoon but after being on hold for an hour and ten minutes I was disconnected. Click. 

Taxpayer Tip #2: Don’t call the IRS or any government office on a Monday. I should have remembered this from prior experience. Call traffic dies down considerably on Tuesday and Wednesday before rising on Thursday and Friday but it is worst on Monday. I don’t know if the information I received about the database not being available until 8:30 AM was an outlier, a common Monday occurrence, or a rib. Not calling on Mondays makes that question unimportant, at least on a Monday.

I called back on Tuesday at 7:00 AM. My call was answered after a forty-five-minute wait by a very patient, polite, and pleasant gentleman. Apparently, the system being down until 8:30 AM was an outlier. Or something else. The representative, pleasant as he was, was having some sort of difficulty with the system which required him to put me on hold two times. We got disconnected during the second hold. 

Taxpayer Tip #3: Most phones have a speaker system. If yours does, use it. Turn it way up so that you can put the phone down and write, read, go to the restroom, or prepare meals for the week while you are waiting on hold.

Taxpayer Tip #4: If you have a landline, use that line to call IRS instead of your cell phone. You don’t want to have defeat snatched from the jaws of victory by a dropped call. Oh, and if someone wants to put you on hold, ask for a direct dial number for them in case you are disconnected. I did that but was told no direct number was available. 

Taxpayer Tip #5: Write and recite your own mantra of thanksgiving while you are waiting or when your call gets disconnected. Mine was:

“Be happy. I am in a nice room in a nice warm and dry house which contains coffee and food which I can sit and consume while wearing comfortable clothes. All else does not matter. Maybe, however, I should have bought that family pack of Chocolate Oreos.”

It took me a couple of tries but I did get back on the waitlist (as opposed to being told to call back later due to high call volume). My call was eventually answered by an absolutely delightful (that is Joespeak for “…and she laughed at my jokes”) young woman. It took about fifteen minutes to establish that I was and am me to the satisfaction of the IRS. She thanked me a couple of times for being prepared and having the documents requested in front of me.

Taxpayer Tip #6: Be prepared. Most letters from the IRS will contain a list of documents to have at hand when you call. Do so. It makes life easier. 

I thanked the representative at the close of the call and told her that I was going to write to my Congressman and tell him 1) what a pleasant experience I had working with her that morning and 2) that whatever the Representative — whose name and ID Number I had dutifully written down — was being paid, it wasn’t enough. 

I then did just that. 

Taxpayer Tip #7: Give credit where due, when due. The IRS representative was up at 7:00 AM and was pleasant while doing her job competently. Most government employees are like sorcerers’ apprentices in terms of workload. They deal with lots of angry brooms all day long. If a tip of the fedora is warranted I like to give it out. It makes me happy to do so and hopefully makes the recipient feel appreciated. Who knows. It might even get them a small cash award or even a step increase. 

That’s me for today. I hope that you never get a letter from a government agency. If you do, and even one of the above tips is helpful, that will make my day. 

If you have any bureaucratic stories that you wish to share (and everything these days, from banks to internet service providers, is a bureaucracy) please do so. If not, we’re still happy to have you. Thank you for being here.

Getting What You Want

Photo by Fernanda Rodriguez from unsplash.com

Happy Halloween! You cannot get away from it. Websites like BloodyDisgusting and The Lineup, which are hardly sedate during the rest of the year, really kicked out the jams in October by letting everyone know about frightening books both new and old, as well what the streaming services are showing to commemorate All Hallow’s Eve (the answer: plenty). 

Out on the street, however, it’s been another story. Some folks have loathe to let their kids out for trick-or-treating for a variety of reasons. Others were concerned about passing out candy for a number of concerns.

I accordingly decided to go dark this Halloween for the first time since I became what I like to think of, probably self-deceptively, as a functioning adult. That raised another issue. What about the children on my street? They are each, to the smallest ankle-biter, uniformly kind, courteous, and in some cases sweet. A solution arrived in due course.

 I decided that I would distribute candy to the neighbor children at their homes before the official Halloween hours commenced. I was mindful that nothing will ruin a Halloween more for a child than finding a bunch of candy that they don’t like (or Apples. Or pretzels. Or anything made by Oral B) at the bottom of their bag at the end of the evening. 

The solution was simple: I did a little market research. I inquired as to the favorite candy of each child. I asked the parents, of course. The sight of an adult male who is elderly, stocky, and bald asking a child about their favorite candy does not make for a good look. Each kid, interestingly enough, had a different preference. I expected some consensus out of the fifteen little neighbors but none was to be had. I had never heard of some of the choices (Warheads? What the feck are Warheads?) but each of them was easily located, thanks to the local Dollar Tree. That, plus some baggies full of dog treats for the families with a Fido saved the day. It worked out fine. Everyone was happy, even (and maybe most of all) Grumpy Old Me. 

Market research. Remember that term.  Candy manufacturers (and manufacturers of just about everything else, really) sink all sorts of lucre into market research, focus groups, and the like before they roll out new products which then swim or sink in the ocean of commerce. Those that tread water and swim multiple laps get pride of place on the shelves of supermarkets. Those that go under three times (usually a product that I really like) don’t get so much as a lifejacket tossed to them. 

The publishing industry is really much more subjective. An author has to find an agent who likes the manuscript AND thinks that it can be sold to a publishing house. The agent finds an editor willing to stick their neck out, who takes it up the line and, well, sticks their neck out to get the book published. Again, it’s not enough for the editor to like the book. The ultimate determinant is whether they think that the book will sell. Editors don’t get in trouble because of the books or authors they miss. They get in trouble for the books they champion and usher to market that miss with the audience. The saying in such a case is, “We shipped twenty-five copies and got twenty-six back.” No one along the line, including the author in most cases, has any real research to back them up when they do this, other than that past performance will (hopefully) be the best indicator of future success. One major exception to this is Dr. Steve Hooley, an author who frequently comments on TKZ. Dr. Steve spends a lot of time at various stages in the writing process bouncing things off of his target audience, and to good effect. He is the exception rather than the rule on this. Authors want to write and finish. Publishers are looking for the successor to the last big hit, which has been at various points Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code or girls with dragon tattoos or on trains. Older readers will recall when Stephen King first broke hugely, and the shelves and racks were full of horror novels. It looks as if that horror cycle is beginning again for a number of reasons. We’ll see. 

Photo by maounping at shutterstock

All of that sounds depressing. It might be. It might also actually be liberating if you are the writer slaving over their keyboard with high hopes of creating a bestseller, or any seller. While you do this, don’t aim to be next on the current trend line. You want to be first on the next trend. You want people to wonder who will be the next YOU. How do you get there? For starters, remember this bit of wisdom. An announcer who began his career on a low-watt radio station in western Pennsylvania eventually, through a lot of hard work and after experiencing years of failure, created a broadcast and merchandise empire by being himself. He did this in part by reminding himself each morning that “Someone is going to be successful today! Why can’t it be me?” Indeed. For seconds, don’t write like someone else. Someone has already done that. Tell yourself your story out loud until it sounds like something you would say. You’ve got a voice. Use it to sound like unique you, not someone else. And have fun while you’re doing it. If you’re not having fun you are probably doing the wrong thing or doing the right thing wrong.

Enjoy your day and evening. I hope you get exactly what you want in your candy bag. Be well, and thank you as always for being here. No you, no me. 

Photo by vishnuMK at unsplash.com

Listening to Your Inner Voice

(Image Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

I am still working away — in fits and starts — on The Lake Effect, my genre-bending novel. I became stuck a couple of weeks ago on what is a common problem for writers. There was something about the narrative that I didn’t like. It had to do with the backstory. I had been dropping parts of it like breadcrumbs throughout the narrative and it kind of worked. I decided, however, was that I have no business putting something out there that “kind of” works if I want someone to spend their time and lucre on it.  I wasn’t quite sure how to fix it or even if it could be fixed without some major surgery.

I was at about the same time conducting an unofficial Taylor Sheridan film festival for myself. Sheridan’s name may not be familiar to you but his fingerprints show up here and there as an actor (he had a recurring role for a couple of seasons in Sons of Anarchy) and as a screenwriter (the films Sicario and Hell or High Water, and a television drama series named Yellowstone). Sheridan’s main strength as a screenwriter is in his dialogue and character development. I wasn’t looking for hints when I started binging his work. I was just watching all of it because I like it. I kept coming back, however, to a movie he scripted named Wind River. 

Wind River is a contemporary western set on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The plot is simple enough. Cory Lambert is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife tracker tasked during a bitterly cold winter with tracking down a predator which is slaughtering Reservation livestock. While doing so he comes upon the bruised and frozen body of a young Native woman named Natalie Hanson. She is ill-dressed for the weather — barefoot, in thin clothing — and miles from any building. An autopsy concludes that Hanson died of exposure but also sustained head trauma and sexual violence.  FBI Special Agent Jane Banner is assigned to investigate the case, which ultimately cannot conclusively be found to be a homicide. Banner is a fish-out-of-water — she is a Florida native and assigned to the Las Vegas FBI office — but her lack of preparedness for Wyoming’s winter weather and relative inexperience in investigative matters is more than made up for by her drive to make sure that the right thing is done on Natalie’s behalf. 

The film does a good job of simply but effectively presenting the clusterfig that federal and tribal jurisdictional differences create as Banner decides to pursue the case, even if she is probably on shaky legal ground in doing so. She persuades Lambert to help her, given his knowledge of the area. Their investigation moves in a straight line but seems to reach a dead end. The audience meanwhile knows nothing more than Lambert and Banner do. About three-fourths of the way into Wind River, however, the present segues smoothly into the past, and the audience learns what occurred over the course of a very intense few minutes that led to Natalie’s tragic end. The story then reverts to the present and a few seconds later all hell breaks loose, again and again. My description does not do justice to what occurs, but on the off-chance that you borrow the video from the library (it also pops on and off the streaming services from time to time), I don’t want to even come close to spoiling the plot for you. 

I watched the movie four times over a period of an equal number of days before it hit me that the solution to my dilemma was in front of me. Rather than drop flashback breadcrumbs throughout the story, I gathered them into a small loaf, coated that with a bit of garlic butter, and served it up warm, steaming, and all at once about two-thirds of the way into my own narration. It worked wonderfully. Thank you, Mr. Sheridan. 

I am sure that my primary reason for watching Wind River over and over was that I like it. I do the same thing with Hell or High Water, which I previously mentioned here. I have concluded, however, that it is entirely possible that my subconscious was trying to steer me toward a possible solution to my writing problem. It just took me a bit of time to pick up the visual and verbal cues. It figures. I have always been a slow study. 

How about you? Has an outside source — one that you were drawn to by chance or whimsy — given you an unexpected solution to a difficult problem, or at least a different way of looking at/approaching something? If so, please share your episode with those of us here assembled. Thanks as always for visiting.