How To (Legally) Get Away With Murder

By Sue Coletta

A few nights ago, my husband and I watched Population Zero, a documentary-style movie based on the alleged true account of a murderer who walked free after confessing to a triple homicide.

In the documentary, the killer even videotaped the murders and summoned this documentarian (our hero) to find the motive behind his killing spree. To entice him, he sent a photo of a bear chasing a horrifically burned buffalo — a symbolic message for the murders he committed in Yellowstone National Park.

The entire ninety-minutes shocked me, not only because a loophole in our constitution allowed a murderer to walk free but because of the explosive ending (no spoilers). It also made me suspicious. I thought, you mean to tell me an entire sheriff’s department couldn’t unravel the mystery but a film-maker cracked the case in a matter of days?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good movie. True story? Ah, not so much. The legal loophole, however, is real. Within the United States there’s a stretch of land where you could, in theory, get away with murder. Fact.

How Is This Possible?

Most of Yellowstone National Park is in Wyoming, but a portion of the federal land extends into Montana and Idaho. That’s where the problem begins. The 50 square miles of Idaho’s section of the national park is called The Zone of Death, and it’s because of a loophole in the U.S. Constitution. If, like in the documentary-style movie, someone committed a spontaneous murder on that 50 square mile strip, the U.S. Constitution may be their ticket to freedom.

Here’s why. Yellowstone National Park is federal land that was established in 1872, years before the three states. Montana joined the union in 1889, Idaho and Wyoming in 1890. Across the United States federal land is split-up and divided into its corresponding state and district courts. Yellowstone National Park is the only exception. 

In 2005, Brian C. Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University of Law, published a paper entitled The Perfect Crime, where he pointed out that all of Yellowstone National Park was assigned to the District of Wyoming. But now, the District of Wyoming includes land in other states. So, Kalt asked the question, “What happens if you’re caught for a crime within that 50 square miles of the Idaho region of the park?” 

The first thing LEO’s would do is bring you to the District Court of Wyoming, because the crime happened within Wyoming’s jurisdiction. But Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states: The trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury; and such trial shall be held in the state where the said crimes shall have been committed; but when not committed within any state, the trial shall be a such place or places as the Congress may be law have directed.

A smart killer, like the one depicted in Population Zero, could assert his right to have his case heard in Idaho. No big deal, right? Well, not exactly. 

Amendment VI states: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

This is called the Vicinage Clause.

Picture two overlapping circles, with Wyoming (the District) on one side and Idaho (the State) on the other. Where these two circles intersect is that 50 square miles of Idaho land. The legal loophole exists because it has a population of zero. No humans live there, therefore, no jury can be called. Kalt argues, the court must let you walk free to avoid violating your Sixth Amendment rights.  

“The more I dug into it, the more interested I got,” Kalt told Vice. “People have this fascination with uncovering a loophole for the perfect crime. There are a lot of different approaches to it. But in terms of geography, there’s just this one spot.”

Kalt proposed numerous solutions to Congress, but they have yet to act. In Kalt’s words, “All they have to do is redraw the district lines so that the District of Wyoming is Wyoming, the District of Idaho is Idaho, and the District of Montana is Montana. And if they do that, this all goes away.”

In Population Zero, the hero set out to prove the killer had preplanned the murder. If so, he could be tried in the district court where the murder was planned. But in the confession, the killer stated that one of the victims started a fight, and he just snapped. In which case, there’s nothing within the law that let’s the court hold him accountable. All events happened within The Zone of Death. Therefore, he walks.

Crazy, right?

I know what you’re all thinking. What a fantastic plot for a novel! Sorry, folks. C.J. Box beat us to it with his 2007 thriller, Free Fire. I should also mention the author tried to fight Congress to close the loophole but no one wants to acknowledge its existence. The only way it’ll happen is if someone dies within The Zone of Death.

The loophole also inspired a 2016 horror film with the same title as the documentary-style movie, Population Zero. Although, I don’t recall the legalities being mentioned.

Has the Loophole Ever Been Tested?

In 2005, a hunter illegally shot an elk. When he fired he was standing in the Montana section of the park. Authorities indicted him in Wyoming. He successfully argued he had a right to be tried by jurors from Montana, and while people do live in that section, there are too few residents to call a legitimate jury. The court dismissed the argument out of hand, simply because it would imply that Yellowstone National Park contained a Zone of Death. 

I’ll leave you with this: the Buffalo Campground, a popular tourist destination with a gorgeous lake and some of the best fishing for miles, is located within The Zone of Death. If you feel lucky, why not add it to your summer vacation plans. Any takers? 🙂 

Have you seen Population Zero or read Free Fire? What do you think of this legal loophole? Let’s discuss.

 

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2018 Writerly Resolutions, Anyone?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Michael Lane – Tacoma

Happy 2018, TKZers! (Sorry for the exclamation point, John. I had to poke you after your great post on Note to Copy Editor.)

Has anyone made any new year’s resolutions for your writing?

I love the start of a new year, especially after I finished December 2017 with time off to replenish the creative well without a deadline to race against. I wanted to spend quality time with family and friends. Mission accomplished.

I have a deadline looming mid-February 2018, so I’m hunkered down with my daily word count, but the time off has done wonders for my enthusiasm.

My 5 Writing Resolutions for 2018

1.) Read Better Books – One of my 2018 resolutions is to read more books from some of my favorite authors. Well-crafted books inspire and challenge me. I love learning new things.

In 2017, I thought that since I read so much, that I should mitigate the hit to my budget by reading free e-books. I DID find some new authors I liked, but they were few and far between. For the most part, I had to stop reading many, many books (which I hate to do), due to the poor quality of the writing.

Some of the chronic problems I saw were novels with excessive passive voice, typos, missing words, rambling internal monologues, back story dumps, chatty dialogue without focus, bland characterizations, misuse of first person POV, characters I didn’t care about, and plots without structure or pace. My version of throwing the book against the wall was to delete/purge the free books off my e-reader.

To kickoff 2018, I’m reading Michael Connelly’s latest – Two Kinds of Truth – & I scored it when it was on sale. Win-Win.

2.) Dare to Try New Things – I have a partially written novel that I will finish in 2018. It involves an aspect of historical writing. It scares me to death. I’ve never taken on such an endeavor, something so daunting for me.

I’ve done my research on Victorian England (countless searches on the Internet and purchasing several research books) and need to infuse my prose with the right time period setting and dialect, without going overboard to slow the pace. It’s been a challenge on layering what I need into every scene, but so far it’s working. I’ve made a resolution to jump back on it after my Feb deadline.

3.) Stay Better Connected with my Family and Friends – This is a personal goal, but it contributes a great deal to my writing inspirations and my positive frame of mind. My close circle gives me the elixir of joy that I need to push myself to new accomplishments. The bigger challenge might be to find face time during the year, in between my deadlines, but this is important to me. It needs to happen.

4.) Add Depth to my Character Voices & Back Story – In my 2018 challenge novel, the one that will have historical elements, I have a unique character that makes me work hard to get her right. I struggle for every word out of her mouth, to make her distinctive. This has not been an easy feat.

As I write, I have my Thesaurus open and often must go back over what I had jotted down in haste, to fine tune her voice and truly listen to her as I edit. One of my pet peeves is to read a book that starts out with great care, but it gets sloppy on the character portrayal in the middle and toward the end. That feels like a cheat to me, so I am putting effort into every scene all the way through.

5.) Find a Better Balance with my Deadlines – I want to find a better balance between writing Amazon Kindle World novellas along with my full novels this year. Kindle World deadlines are totally up to me on how many I agree to write and what those deadlines might be. I will commit to fewer KWs this year (to write in more selected worlds), in order to find time for my full length novels and proposals.

 

Those are my top five resolutions. They should probably be called GOALS. In my mind they are very achievable and I’m determined to check them off my list as I get them done.

For Discussion:

What about you, TKZers? Have you made any writer resolutions for 2018?

Do you have any rituals for goal setting? How do you celebrate your achievements?

Below is my next cover for a book I haven’t started yet. I have a general idea on the plot and had a broad outline, but after playing with the cover, I’m now inspired to launch into the story. I even changed the title to make it fit.

Cover Design by: Fiona Jayde Media

Valentine & the Lotus Circle

(Novella 2 of 2)

Coming Feb, 2018

Love made him vulnerable…once

Driven by guilt and revenge over a tragic death, Braxton Valentine is coerced into being the latest recruit to the Phoenix Agency as a covert operator and a powerful psychic, but he is not a team player. To confront his rogue ways, the Agency hires a mysterious woman psychic from the ancient and mythical Lotus Circle–and she takes no prisoners.

6+

Note to Copy Editor

By John Gilstrap

After spending a year creating a story line and populating it with characters that I hope are interesting, it’s time to send my novel off to my editor, who will let me know, in blisteringly easy-to-interpret terms, where my efforts succeeded and where they fell short.  I spend as much time as is necessary to repair, prop-up or redesign the story difficulties, at which time I send the manuscript back to the publisher. At that point, I will have fulfilled my D&A (delivery and acceptance) contract element, and, not insignificantly, will get paid.

Just when I think I am done with the story–about the time when I am moving on to the next one–I get the copy edits back. For the most part, copy editors are freelancers, and they may or may not have any familiarity with my work, or even with the genre in which I write. It seems to me (and I say this with a huge amount of respect) that their primary skills are an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules of grammar, and the ability to process the tiniest of details. Combine those traits with a research instinct that borders on obsessive-compulsive, and the ideal copy editor is born.

And I need them. After 18 books, I’ve surrendered to the fact that I will never understand the true use of commas, that the proper use of the words “which” and “that” will be forever beyond my ken, and that I am unable to keep my characters from nodding or sighing too much.  I am wont to have characters sit after they have never stood, and close doors that have never been opened. It is the largely un-celebrated copy editors of the world who keep the reading public from knowing how unqualified I am to do the work that I do.

But sometimes, copy editors change stuff that shouldn’t be changed, and for that reason, as the author, I must approve or disapprove every alteration they propose. At times, knowledge of grammar gets in the way. An example that comes to mind is from a few books ago when the copy editor changed “Jonathan looked at the door the kid had just come through” to “Jonathan looked at the door whence the kid had just come.” While grammatically correct, “whence” is a word that has no place in commercial thrillers. The same copy editor took it upon herself to replace Jonathan Grave’s beloved Colt 1911 .45 with a pistol her research had told her would be more appropriate to his purposes.

Okay, that was a one-off horrible copy editing experience (over 300 proposed changes of which I rejected over 200), and I have it on good authority that she and I will never cross paths again.

The whole agonizing process is made even more agonizing by technology. In the good old days, copy edits came back as a stack of papers with red marks on them. It was actually kind of fun to sit in the lounge chair with a lap desk and either “STET” or approve the changes with a different-color pencil. Now, the copy edits come back as a Word file with Track Changes turned on. I am not allowed merely to reject a change, because that would make my copy different than the publishing house’s copy, and that would screw up the system.  Thus, if I want to reject a change or re-insert a deleted portion, I need to drop my cursor into the appropriate spot and retype.  A simple STET is no longer allowed.

What used to take only a few days now takes a couple of weeks. It’s that long a slog.

So, to ease the process, I took a step several books ago to limit the misunderstandings that might develop between the copy editor and myself. I developed a Gilstrap Style Sheet, which I insert between the cover page and Chapter One of every manuscript I submit.  I thought I’d share it with you.  (I’ve inserted some explanation in italics where I think my reasoning might not be obvious.)

NOTE TO COPY EDITOR: Stylebook notwithstanding, please note the following:

The possessive form of Boxers is Boxers’ (not Boxers’s).  This change does not affect any other names that end with S. (I’ve always believed that when people read silently, they’re really reading aloud without sound, and syntax counts.)

In every case, branches of the US armed services are always capitalized (e.g., Jonathan’s days in the Army; when Henry was in the Navy, etc.)  (Frankly, I’m a little shocked that this is not the convention.)

Consider landmarks within Jonathan’s office to be proper nouns and capitalized as such (The Cave, the War Room, etc.)

Please consider all weapons nomenclature to be correct as written. (e.g., Jonathan carries a “Colt 1911 .45”, even though the official listing might show the pistol to be a Colt M1911A1, and even though there are newer versions of the platform available.  These are very deliberate choices.)

When referencing calibers of weapons, all measurements are singular.  (e.g., an HK 417 is chambered in nine millimeter, not nine millimeters.)

References to federal agencies need no definite article.  (e.g., “He’s with DEA” is fine. He’s not with THE DEA.)

When Boxers or other team members refer to Jonathan as “Boss”, the word should be capitalized.

No semicolons, grammar notwithstanding.

Northern Virginia and the Washington Metropolitan Area are both proper nouns and require capitalization.

Please assume all dialogue to be correct as written.  Feel free to correct spelling and typos, but do not strive to make dialogue grammatically correct.

In dialogue, “Dammit” and “Goddammit” and “Goddamn” should be considered to be correct. (I’ve made an effort to reduce the profanity in my books, and to my eye, the one-word construction is less offensive. It could be that I’m just being strange.)

I intentionally avoid parentheses and single-quote marks in dialogue. Please do not insert them.

As a rule, I dislike exclamation points, and use them sparingly. Please avoid inserting them.

Any thoughts out there about the editing process in general, or copy editing in particular? Any items you think should be added to or removed from the personal style sheet?

Happy New Year, by the way! (Notice the exclamation point.)

 

9+

Our Brain and Creativity

By Sue Coletta

Creativity and the brainFirst, let’s define the word “muse.”

A muse is a woman, or a force personified as a woman, who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist. How amazing that we’re able to tap into her energy and translate our story to the page.

An alternate definition of “muse” is an ancient Greek word that means to be absorbed in thought or inspired. Amusement is the absence of thought or inspiration. Hence why social media can destroy our creative time. Over saturating ourselves with anything, including thoughts, outside and inner pressure, too many ideas, etc., can wound our muse. Ever notice that some of our best ideas come when we’re falling asleep or taking a shower or walk? That’s because our mind is relaxed.

What happens inside the brain?

Dr. Lotze from the University of Greifswald had always been fascinated by the creativity of writers, so he wondered how the brain reacted when they crafted stories. In a scientific study, he took novice writers who’d never completed a story and professional writers who’d authored published books. The results amazed him.

Did you know our brains react differently, depending on whether an author writes professionally or if they’re just beginning their writing journey?

First, Dr. Lotze built a custom-made writing desk. While lying supine, their head cocooned inside the scanner, the subject rested their arm on a wedged block. He positioned several mirrors which allowed the writers to see what they were writing.

Novice Writers 

Dr. Lotze asked 28 volunteers to first only copy a block of text. This gave him a baseline of brain activity. Next, he gave them the first few lines of a short story and told them to continue on. Thus, triggering their muse. They were allowed to brainstorm for one minute, write for two.

Hippocampus in red.

The research showed certain parts of the brain became active during the creative process but not while copying text. During brainstorming, some vision-processing regions also came alive in some of the writers, as if they were seeing the scene unfold in their mind’s eye.

During the writing process, other regions activated, as well. Dr. Lotze theorized that the hippocampus was retrieving factual information for the subjects to use in their stories. Who says research isn’t important?

Another region of the brain, near the front — left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for storing several pieces of information at once — also activated. When writers juggle characters and plot lines we put special demands on that part of the brain.

The problem with this study was that he’d chosen all novice writers.

What happens inside the mind of a seasoned writer? 

Twenty authors volunteered this time. In the same position as the novice writers, Dr. Lotze gave seasoned writers the exact same instructions. Brainstorm for one minute, write for two. Like before, the first few lines had been written for them.

Dr. Lotze’s findings are as follows …

During creative writing, cerebral activation occurred in a predominantly left-hemispheric fronto-parieto-temporal network. When compared to inexperienced writers, researched proved increased left caudate nucleus and left dorsolateral and superior medial prefrontal cortex activation. In contrast, less experienced participants recruited increasingly bilateral visual areas. During creative writing, activation in the right cuneus showed positive association with the creativity index in expert writers.

High experience in creative writing seems to be associated with a network of prefrontal and basal ganglia (caudate) activation. In addition, the findings suggested that high verbal creativity specific to literary writing increased activation in the right cuneus associated with increased resources obtained for reading.

You can read the full report here.

Let’s break it down in easier terms.

The brains of seasoned writers worked differently than novice writers, even before they began to write. During the brainstorming, the novice writers showed more activity in the brain’s regions responsible for speech.

“I think both groups are using different strategies,” said Lotze. “It’s possible that the novice writers are watching their stories like a film inside their head while the professional authors are narrating it with an inner voice.”

He discovered more differences.

Deep inside the brain of seasoned writers, a region called the caudate nucleus, responsible for skills that require a lot of training and practice, also became active. In the novice writer, it didn’t. The caudate remained quiet. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that when we start learning a skill we’re more consciously trying to master it. With practice, those actions become largely automatic, and it’s inside the caudate nucleus where the shift occurs.

Skeptics like Dr. Pinker, another scientist, said the test wasn’t involved enough to make comparisons. He’d rather see tests between writing fiction vs. nonfiction or other factual information. Creativity might also cause differences from writer to writer. For example, some writers may activate the taste-perceiving regions in the brain when they write about food. Another writer might rely more on sound. Paul Dale Anderson wrote a fascinating post that touched on this difference in more depth.

What’s the best way to summon creativity?

Read a book, listen to music or audiobooks — any exercise that forces us to envision someone else’s story world. A passionate and focused writer can accomplish more in a few hours than an unfocused writer can in a full day.

Over to you TKZers. What do you think of this study? Are you an auditory or visual writer? While writing, can you taste the food?

8+

The Great American Novel That Wasn’t

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The 1950s was a robust decade for American letters. The letter B had a particularly good run.

In the other kind of letters—literature—there were two tracks that fed a voracious reading public: the mass market paperback, and the middlebrow-Book-of-the-Month-Club-style hardback.

With paperbacks, dozens of writers made good money writing crime, Westerns, mysteries, Sci-Fi, etc. Most covers were salacious, for these were marketed as impulse buys on wire spinners in drug stores, bus stations, and truck stops. Real bookstores did not carry titles like these:

Ignoring the paperback original neighborhoods, the literati were about hardcovers and reviews in the New York Times. This was where the “important” novels were to be found. Perhaps even that white whale, The Great American Novel.

Those who put themselves in the running for this prize were authors like Norman Mailer, Herman Wouk, John Steinbeck, Ayn Rand, John O’Hara, Irwin Shaw. And one of the ways they measured the potential was pure, raw page count. These authors put out doorstops. Some of the pantagruelian publications—like East of Eden, Marjorie Morningstar and Atlas Shrugged—were big bestsellers. Others, however, no so much.

Perhaps the biggest flopperoo of all weighed in at a staggering 1,230 pages—the longest novel published by an American author to that date (1957). It was Some Came Running by James Jones, a novel that took six years to write and was absolutely savaged by the critics.

Jones was, of course, the author of another big book that was a smash success as both novel and movie: From Here to Eternity. It was his first novel, too, which put enormous pressure on him to produce a fitting follow-up. Didn’t happen. A sense of the critics may be found in a clip from one of the reviews:

From Here to Eternity was both moving and comic because of the herculean efforts of its hero to fight the System; Some Came Running fails because the hero’s resistance to the system has now been elevated into a philosophical principle. Jones’s new determination to lay down doctrine is doubtless due to his inflated sense of his role as a novelist, a result of his first success.

Because of Eternity, the movie rights to Some Came Running were gobbled up by MGM well before the book came out. I wonder what the boss at MGM, Joe Vogel, thought when he read the novel … or at least looked at it sitting on his desk.

Fortunately, the project was given to Vincente Minnelli and turned into a commercial hit. It starred Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, and Martha Hyer. A highly abridged paperback (!) was released to go along with the movie.

The book soon fell out of print. But in the new digital age is has been brought back by Open Road Media.

I read it. At least most of it. Well, maybe 75% of it, because I did a lot of skimming starting around page 500. What went wrong with this novel? For me, the following:

First, Jones made an odd stylistic choice to eschew apostrophes in the conjunctions. So you get lines like this through the whole novel:

“Ill probably never get another chance,” Dave had said, “but if I did, I still dont think Id take it.”

Second, about 85% of the book is narrative summary. In other words, the great majority of the novel is not presented in immediate scenes, given beat by beat on the page. Rather, we get page after page of the author telling us what happened.

The biggest problem, though, is that I didn’t bond with any of the characters. The protagonist, Dave Hirsh, is a novelist and war vet (a thinly-veiled James Jones) returning to his home town after nineteen years. He finds it hard to write, but not to drink. And brood. That wasn’t enough for me.

The movie succeeds, in my opinion, mainly because of Shirley MacLaine as Ginnie. In the book, Ginnie is a “floozy” who falls for Dave. Dave marries her only because the other woman, the virginal Gwen, rejects him. Ginnie does not wear well on Dave, who is let out of the marriage …

**SPOILER ALERT**

… by getting murdered at the end of the novel.

**END SPOILER ALERT**

MacLaine, on the other hand, earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress. She’s wonderful and heartbreaking, especially in the final scene (quite different from the book).

So what’s the point of all this ruminating on a novel from the 1950s? Let’s see if I can figure it out:

  1. It doesn’t matter how many pages a novel has, without character bonding there’s no reason to read them.
  2. “Show, Don’t Tell” is a fundamental (rule?) for a reason.
  3. Every author needs a good editor (note: see the unedited, author’s version of The Stand).
  4. Still, you have to admire James Jones. He had the nearly impossible task of following From Here to Eternity. The sheer effort in writing Some Came Running is something only another writer will understand. All authors write books that don’t make it, but few take six years to do so. Credit James Jones with the grit to keep on writing, eventually producing two other books in his war trilogy that will stand the test of time—The Thin Red Line and Whistle. All three are now available in one set from Open Road.
  5. The writing life is one of highs and lows, with a few sprinkled in-betweens.

So how are you dealing with the highs and lows?

NOTE: I wrote a book about such dealings if you’d care to have a look.

2+

Do You Journal?

 

Look at all the lovely notebooks.

From the top:

Emerald Leuchtturm-Current Bullet Journal, containing calendar events, daily schedule, car maintenance, random notes taken when the appropriate journal wasn’t available.

White Paper-Masako Kubo–Stapled, not bound.  Last summer’s dream journal, reference.

Red HC Moleskine–Long term ideas for novels and stories since 2011

Light Blue Leuchtturm–Mid-End of 2016 Bullet Journal. I didn’t get into Bullet Journaling until late last year. Now using for blog thoughts and ideas

Teal Flexible Moleskine–Current Morning Pages Journal

Bright Orange Moleskine Notebook–Short story development

Buff Flexible Moleskine--Novel (Formerly The Intruder) WIP notes

Orang/Red Moleskine Notebook–Novel (Untitled cozy–Yeah, gonna give that genre a shot)

Bright Pink Leuchtturm1917 Master Slim–This started out as my 2017 Bullet Journal, but it proved too large for toting around. The 5×8 version (top) fits nicely in any purse or bag. I consider this my Journal of As Yet Unrecognized Possibilities.

For somebody who only owned one non-spiral bound notebook six years ago–the Red HC Moleskine–I’ve certainly made up for lost time. What you don’t see are the notebooks for my last three novels, the Bliss House Trilogy, because I’ve archived them.

As a young writer, I wasn’t much of a journaler. I wanted to write, but I was too embarrassed to write down things that might look silly to other people and carried around my ideas in my head. Of course, journals are meant to be private. I have no idea who I thought would want to even peek at my journals. The words were hardly titillating, the ideas tentative and unpolished. It’s not like I kept money or passwords between the pages.

But now that I’m a woman of a certain age, journals have become critical tools. Not only do I have more pressing/interesting  ideas, I also have a memory like a sieve. Journals are my full-body, writerly Spanx. They keep everything tucked in and looking, if not good, at least organized.

I’ve become very attached lately to the notion of ideas floating from writer to writer, looking for the right one to tell the story. It’s an idea I first read of in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. She talks about starting to write a novel that had been sort of pestering her–but she struggled, and it just wasn’t happening. So she temporarily shelved it. But then she talked to novelist Ann Pachett, who described her own work-in-progress. And the ideas were nearly identical. But Pachett’s book was going very well, and she later finished it and sold it.

By writing ideas down, I hope to tether them at least for a while. Collect them, live with them, let them nurture themselves with the attention I can give them. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone back to the pages of that Red HC Moleskin when I needed a quick idea fix.

Still, it’s a rather intimidating pile of notebooks. They don’t travel easily, and I’ve only recently gotten used to having the Bullet Journal always with me. For a while I tried an app called Wanderlist, but tapping reminders and notes into my phone makes much less of an impression on me than when I write things down. Then I forget to look at the app often enough.

Tell us how you keep track of your ideas and schedule. Do you journal? Or do you go the electronic route?

.

 

11+

My Day With John Wayne and Perry Como

By John Gilstrap

For those of you who came here today to learn a little more about blowing stuff up–which I promised to discuss–you’re likely to be a little disappointed.  Fact is, there’s breaking news that takes precedence.  On December 19, at 3:00 pm (and probably again, later) getTV will rebroadcast Perry Como’s Early American Christmas, which first aired on December 12, 1978.  It features the College of William and Mary Choir, of which I was a part.  Here’s a screen shot of my 21-year-old self in the company of my dear friend, Jim Shaffran (who is now part of the permanent company of the Washington National Opera).

screenshot-2016-12-06-12-11-43

That was taken while shooting a tavern scene, the entirety of which can be seen here.  It’s worth noting that shooting started somewhere around 5:00 a.m., encompassed many takes, and that the tankards all contained real beer.  More on that later.

We had known from the beginning of the school year that the Perry Como Christmas Special would be shot in Williamsburg, and that the choir would be involved.  We also knew that the Men of the Choir (as we called ourselves) would have a featured part, but as I recall, we didn’t know until very late in the game that it would be a costumed performance.  That meant visits to the Colonial Williamsburg costume shop, fittings, and, well, responsibility.  By the time I was a senior, I had designed my entire existence around as little responsibility as possible.  But I stepped up and, I have to say, rocked the outfit.

Was I concerned that the shooting schedule fell squarely in the middle of midterm exams?  Well, maybe.  But I was going to get to meet John Wayne.  No, really.  John Friggin Wayne.  I could repeat my senior year if I had to, but, come on . . . John Wayne!

First a little bit about Mr. Wayne.  For me, being a male of a certain age, the Duke exhibited pretty much everything that defined being a man’s man.  In person, he was huge.  When he shook my hand, he engulfed pretty much the whole thing, up to the wrist.  He spoke in real life in that same halting syntax that you hear in the movies.  And he was cranky.  (We didn’t know it at the time, but this Christmas special would be one of his last performances before passing away.)

If you’ve ever done any kind of video, you know how long and boring the setup for any shot can be.  While the crews did their thing, Perry worked the crowd.  We were at least one–maybe two–flagons of ale into the morning before the director said, “action” for the first time.  If you listen carefully to Perry, I think you’ll hear that he was a bit lolly-tongued when it came time for “I Saw Three Ships.”  And he kept blowing takes.  Full disclosure: As a practical matter, it was impossible for us to blow takes because the singing you hear was all prerecorded.  It’s all our voices, but done in a studio.  In the video, we’re singing along with the playback.

As the morning–and the takes–ground on, John Wayne’s fuse grew shorter and shorter.

And the flagons flowed.  I was pretty much an Olympic class beer drinker when I was 21, and I remember realizing that I was ripshit well before noon.  Not shown in the video clip is the climax of the tavern scene where Perry and the Duke toast us with, “Merry Christmas!” and we respond in kind, upending the mugs of beer and their contents.  And then a new mug would appear.  And of course, the scene had to be shot from every angle.

By the time it ended, the Duke was, well, pissed off.  Made things a little awkward on the set, but Perry seemed to be having the time of his life.

I had a blast that day.  At the end of the shooting, around 1:30, as I recall, the director said they needed extras for other scenes they’d be shooting that day and night and asked if any of us would like to stick around.  What the hell?  No one looks at senior year grades anyway.  If you watch the entire special and look closely, you’ll see me walking in and around a number of other scenes.  You’ll also see a couple of stunning performances by the entire choir.

For as long as I can remember, my mother had a serious crush on Perry Como, the the news of my involvement in the Christmas special was particularly well-received in Springfield, Virginia.  To hear her tell the story, the show was really about Perry and me.  Moms are like that.  In one especially amusing anecdote, I called home to relay the events of the shooting day.  While telling the story of the endless flagons of ale and Perry’s progressing inebriation, I mentioned in passing that during one of the breaks, Perry and I chatted while peeing at adjacent urinals.  My mother’s question: “Did you peek?”  Me: “Mom!”

When the very long day was over, and crews were breaking things down, I found myself face-to-face with John Wayne with no others pulling at his attention.  I told him that I was a huge fan of his work, and what an honor it was to have spent the day with him, and if I could please have an autograph.  He said, and I quote, “No.”  Then he walked away.  I figure he wasn’t feeling well.

But I got to meet him.  And I shook his hand.

We folks at The Killzone will be taking our Holiday Hiatus before my next posting time comes around, so let me take this opportunity to wish all of you a wonderful time with family and friends, good food and lots of laughter.  I’ll see you on the flip, in 2017, and I promise we’ll start by blowing stuff up again.

 

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On Retreat: Running Away to Write

 

Last week I started organizing end-of-fiscal year tax receipts. Having just returned from Bouchercon, it was a good time to make sure I had my business trip records all in order (read: receipts stuffed into individual envelopes). At first, it was the only trip I recalled, but then I remembered a couple readings in St. Louis I could claim hotel and mileage expenses for. It seemed slim pickings, but I will be touring this month and some of next, so there will be many more envelopes. Then I remembered my writing retreats.

Way back in early January, I needed to get some serious, concentrated words on my WIP, which was due on Valentine’s Day. ( I wrote a bit about it a few Wednesdays ago on my 10K-A-Day post.) I love my family, but if there are other people in the house, my concentration flees. Sometimes I’m able to shut my office door, but I’m always wondering what’s going on on the other side of it. So I often find myself doing things that are not writing during the daylight hours, and only writing after ten p.m. when everyone has gone to bed. I love the quiet. No voices. No music. Not much happening on FaceBook. Snoring animals. Owls outside my window. Those are perfect writing conditions for my ADD brain. Sadly, the not-perfect part is that I routinely go to bed at 1:30 and get up at 7:30. It wears on a body.

So, last January I got myself an AirBnB apartment in St. Louis for several days. It was on a cul-de-sac, and very quiet. Blissfully quiet. Lonesome, even. The chair was uncomfortable and kept me upright. I was paying lots of money to be there, so I was mindful. I only had to cook for myself. (That was weird.) I didn’t stay up all that late, and I wrote in 2-3 long sessions each day. It was my second-favorite writing retreat I’d ever taken, after a solo week at an inn on Ocracoke Island in 2002. (In fact I think it was only my 2nd writing retreat, period.)

But I did get in another writing retreat this year. Over Labor Day Weekend, I went to the Nashville home of another writer—along with four other women. That was something I’d never done before. (Though I did go to a scrapbooking lake retreat around 2004. I didn’t and don’t scrapbook, but I journalled and did needlepoint. On reflection, it was probably a little odd that I went. Still, there was wine and the women were friendly.)

Writing in a crowd felt awkward at first. There was plenty of room to spread out, so we didn’t actually even have to see one another if we didn’t want to. But eventually I adjusted. Everyone was serious about getting words done. Then we gathered for meals, taking turns cooking. In the evening, there was wine and much discussion and much laughter. We talked about our careers and the industry and craft, and told stories that were harrowing or hysterically funny. It was a completely different kind of retreat.

I didn’t get more than five thousand words on that retreat. Hardly comparable to my January trip. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I returned energized and ready to work harder. Writing can be such a lonely job. As here at TKZ, it’s good to be with like-minded people. To share stories and advice and good news and bad. And there’s nothing like face-to-face communication with nary a computer screen in sight.

Have you ever gone on a writing retreat—alone or with other writers?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Heart, coming October 11th. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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Is It Time to Quit the Day Job?

By John Gilstrap

Well, well. It’s been awhile since I wandered into the Killzone. I love what you’ve done with the place. I figure it’s been about six years since I took my hiatus from these halls. I see lots of familiar faces, and a happy number of new ones as well. Now, if you’ll excuse me for just a second, let me go to the fireplace and turn my coffee cup around so it’s facing front again.

When I departed the Killzone after its first three years, I did it in part because the pressures of my day job—which required an insane amount of overnight travel—combined with my annual book contracts left me with too little time to do justice to everything. Something had to go, so the voluntary commitment bit the dust.

Effective January of last year, I departed that day job after 10½ years, and while I’m still busy as hell, there’s room again in the schedule for blogging. When I reached out to my buddy Jim Bell to see if there might be room for a returning emeritus, I learned that Joe Moore was planning his departure, and here we are.

I thought it appropriate for my first foray back into blogdom to talk about making the decision to quit the day job. Most artists have dreamed of turning their back on the workaday world and throwing their entire being into writing or singing or painting or . . . well, you get it. How do you know when it’s time (or if it’s okay) to pull the trigger on a job—or, in my case, on a 35-year career? (I am/was a safety engineer by training and degree, with a special emphasis on explosives, hazardous materials, firefighting and various metals processing operations.)

As a rule, I discourage people from making the jump to full-time writing unless they have a financial backstop—a working spouse, perhaps, with a dependable income stream and employer-paid insurance. I for sure discourage people who have never published a book, or who perhaps have published only one or two okay-performers from making the leap.

Full disclosure: I’m a planner and a risk avoider. I don’t roll the dice on important stuff.

In my world view, you always take care of family first. The baby’s got to have food and diapers, the teenagers have to have as good a shot at a great launch as you can give them. My own experience shows that writing success can be achieved just as well as a part-time endeavor as it can be from a full-time commitment. For me, it played out like this:

Books 1 & 2: Written part time, while working 60 to 80 hours a week.
Books 3, 4 & 5: Written full-time, but supplemented by income from screenplays and insurance paid for by the Writers Guild of America.
Books 6 thru 14: Written part time while working a day job that required nearly 200 nights of travel per year.
Books 15 & 16: Written full-time.

If you’ve got a passion for writing, you’ll find a way to make it work, one way or another. In the vast pantheon of people who tell stories on the page, relatively few of them do so full time. And of those who do, my experience shows that they have a working spouse, or have retired and have an additional source of income. In my own case, I spent 20 years investing and saving for this moment, to the point that if the book market crashes, we’ll still make ends meet.

So, how do you know if you’re ready for the switch to full-time writing? Well, obviously mileage will vary, but here are a few questions to ask yourself.

Can you afford it?

Only you know what your lifestyle needs are, and how much cash flow you require to support it. Only you know how much risk you’re willing to take, and what sacrifices you’re willing to make. Still, here are some realities to consider (We’ll assume that you’re married without dependent children, you’re a 50-year-old sole bread-winner making $100,000 per year from writing alone, and that you live in Fairfax, Virginia):

1. 15% comes off the top for agent commission, leaving you with $85K in taxable income.
2. The $85K puts you in the 25% tax bracket, so $21,250 goes to Uncle Sam.
3. Of the remaining $63,750, you’ll owe another $4,400 to Virginia.
4. That brings us to $59,350.
5. Now remember that since you’re self-employed, you need to cover both the employer and employee share of FICA, so that’s another 15% of taxable income, or $12,750, leaving you with $46,600 to pay bills.
6. Don’t forget health insurance, which is far too moving a target to guess at a number, but plan on about $1,000 per month, provided you stay healthy.
7. Of your $100,000, then, you’ve only got about $34,600 left in truly discretionary income.

The killers here are the 7.5% employer’s share of FICA and the health insurance. For my wife and I, who are both healthy yet take some medications, our insured healthcare costs will approach $30,000 per year until we reach the age of 65.

If you’re on the edge of making the move to full-time artist, invest in both a good lawyer and a good accountant to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of incorporation, and on the structure of the corporation you form.

Can you handle the loneliness?

The first time I left a day job to write full-time, loneliness proved to be my Achilles heel. It’s not that I’m not content keeping my own company, but rather that as a Type A extrovert, I missed the water cooler action. Spending the day playing with your imaginary friends can get to be pretty isolating if you let it.

Are you ready to turn your passion into a real job?

It’s a big deal to entrust your financial future to an industry as capricious as the entertainment business, where your reputation and paycheck are literally tied to your latest effort. Readers’ tastes change, publishers go out of business, editors and agents retire. Any one of those events—or any one of a bajillion others, for that matter—can turn current success on its ear. And you’ll have to adapt. It’s no different than any other business, but in my experience, creative people start a writing business with far less preparation and due diligence than the average entrepreneur. Don’t make that mistake.

Whether you’re traditionally published or you choose the far more challenging self-publishing route, this job is as much about marketing and business management as it is about creativity. While your expenses are tax deductible, they are not free. Those expense reports you used to turn in to the accounting office for reimbursement are now paid out of your own funds. That short story that you used to squeeze out free of charge for a charity anthology now represents real opportunity costs that are measured in real dollars.

Will you be happy with your decision five years from now?

Back when Joy and I were first married, my mother counseled that if we waited to have children or buy a house until we thought we could afford them, we’d never have children and we’d be renting forever. Sometimes, making the decision casts the future. Failure is not an option.

There’s no such thing as security in any job market these days. We all know people who have been laid off without ceremony after having dedicated decades of their lives to the company they loved. Business is business, after all, and there’s rarely room for mercy from the corner offices.

It could be argued that shifting from what I used to call a Big Boy Job to a creative job is no more or less risky than leaving Google to go to work for Apple. They’re all big steps.

They’re all big decisions.

 

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