by Matthew Sherley on February 26, 2014

fav7Apparently, Kim Kardashian didn’t want Kanye West to see the post-pregnancy stretch marks on her breasts. Or maybe it wasn’t him she was worried about. Maybe she has plans to show everyone else her boobs since Kanye presumably gets to see all the “other” stretch marks. Either way, the reality TV star is back in the news.  Reality?  Who “really” lives like that.

After recently being in the news complaining about the media’s obsession with the size of her backside, I guess Ms. K didn’t want any negative coverage about the appearance of her front side. Coverage. Now there’s a concept. It seems to me that the best way to ensure getting a fair shake from the media (or would that be a jiggle?) when it comes to striae on the skin of your bosom, is to keep the girls covered. But that’s just me.

Her willingness to be more than a little intimate in front of the camera is well documented. Eschewing modesty once again, she opted for laser removal of the offending stretch marks. On television. I guess any coverage is better than no coverage. Or do I have it backwards in her case?

So what would cause an attractive, affluent young woman to televise her laser procedure to remove stretch marks from her breasts? Two things. First, her insatiable need for attention. Second, our apparent unending willingness to give her that attention. Frankly, I’m not sure which of the two is more ludicrous. We are like the rubbernecking onlookers gathered at the scene of an accident where two locomotives have collided head-on. We know it is bad, but we can’t stop staring at the wreckage. When it comes to Keeping Up With the Kardashians, we just can’t seem to pull the trigger on our own laser removal devices, our TV remotes, to stop the madness.

Such is the train wreck that is Kim Kardashian.



by Matthew Sherley on February 22, 2014

fav7High concept. Agents seek it. Publishers demand it. Movie studios thrive on it. Authors? They just want to know what the heck it is. The problem is that if you were to ask three professionals from the publishing industry to define high concept, you would likely get four different answers, maybe five.

As it turns out, defining high concept is not as easy as one might think. Perhaps the best definition is found in the language used by Justice Potter Stewart to describe pornography when he wrote the majority opinion for the United States Supreme Court in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). Justice Stewart wrote, “I shall not today attempt to further define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it (emphasis added). Was Justice Stewart talking about pornography or high concept?

There are many definitions to the high concept novel:

• it can be pitched in one sentence

• it has a unique premise

• it has mass public appeal

• it can be pitched as “what if”

• it can be pitched as a crossing of two well-known works

Using the above as a formula, the next blockbuster New York Times bestseller could be, “What if a milquetoast man traveling the world seeking affirmation was really a CIA assassin (Jason Bourne meets Walter Middy).” No? As it turns out, defining high concept is a bit of a slippery slope. However, there are some constants to the elusive definition.

It is safe to assume that of the definitions listed above, two are absolute musts if you want your manuscript to be noticed when you query. First, the premise has to be unique. It has been said that every story has already been told. If that is true, how is it that readers continue to buy some books at a rate that lands them on bestseller lists? Because the author found a way to make the premise of their story unique. The concept of the story may be familiar, but there is a unique twist that sets the work apart from all others. Second, the manuscript needs to have mass appeal. Publishers are in business to make money. Likewise, self-publishers would like their books to sell well enough so they can ditch the dreaded day job. Either way, mass appeal is the key to mass sales.

While unique premise and mass public appeal are certainly requirements of high concept novels, a work that contains both of those elements AND can be pitched in a single sentence is much more likely to be noticed by agents during the query process. Agents receive hundreds of queries per week. Simple mathematics and common sense dictate that in addition to representing the clients they already have, agents don’t have time to read every word of every query from every potential new client. If you want to be the exception to that rule, grab them with your one sentence logline and make sure the unique premise and mass-market appeal are obvious.

Agents, publishers and movie producers might not be able to tell you exactly what they are looking for when it comes to high concept, but trust me, write a good enough manuscript and just like Justice Potter Stewart, they will know it when they see it.



by Matthew Sherley on February 21, 2014

fav7What caught my eye about the person CNN Newsroom anchor Brooke Baldwin was interviewing on February 18, 2014 was not the shaved dome of his head. Nor was it the bushy goatee or the gruff, semi-articulate manner in which he spoke. What caught my eye was the sunglasses.

I immediately flashed back to my days as a rookie patrol officer listening intently as my training officer imparted a gem of wisdom that has remained with me for more than three decades: “Never trust a man who wears sunglasses indoors.”

The man in the sunglasses was Larry Levine, also known as Lawrence Jay Levine, Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate number 11742-112. Since his release from federal prison in 2007, Levine has become a “prison consultant.” Baldwin was interviewing him about the Michael Dunn convictions, specifically what Dunn could expect upon entering prison.

I found the interview to be irresponsible and Levine’s “advice” to Dunn appalling. More appalling than the jailhouse advice being spewed forth was CNN’s position that what Dunn could expect in prison was somehow newsworthy. Dunn was arrested and tried for shooting to death an African-American teenager following a dispute over loud music. Certainly newsworthy.  While Dunn was convicted on four counts of attempted murder, the jury deadlocked on the most serious count, first-degree murder. Also newsworthy. Will Dunn be retried on the first-degree murder charge? Newsworthy as well. What is not newsworthy is what Michael Dunn can expect upon entering prison.

Baldwin’s opening question to Levine was whether prisoners would even know who Michael Dunn is and whether or not they follow the news. Levine assured viewers that inmates do indeed follow the news. He specifically mentioned them watching CNN. The implication was that they would certainly be watching him on CNN. Levine then says that Dunn is going to have a hard time when he gets to prison because black gang members (specifically the Black Guerilla Gang and the Black Gangster Disciples) will be waiting for him and Levine further asserts that the gang members can get to Dunn. Was the purpose of Baldwin’s interview to report the news or to predict an imminent crime? I suspect more the latter than the former.

Baldwin prefaces her follow-up question with, “Now, given the target that will likely be on Dunn’s back…” Again, predicting a crime rather than reporting on one. If Levine was correct and the inmates where Dunn is incarcerated WERE actually watching the interview, if they weren’t already planning something, Baldwin certainly planted the seed by asserting that Dunn will have a target on his back. Her actual question was, “I know you’re betting he’ll ultimately be put in PC, in protected custody, but how protected will he actually be from the general prison population?”

The words Levine used to answer the question are telling. He refers to the prison administrators in Florida and says, “…they’ll assess the threat against him because they’ve got rats throughout the prisons (emphasis added), the management that administration, and determine if there’s any chatter going on.” Larry Levine professes to be a professional businessman now. He charges people large sums of money to teach them how to “survive in prison.”  Does the language he used sound like that of a professional businessman? Or does it sound more like someone still operating in a criminal mindset? Clearly, Levine feels that inmates who are willing to talk to prison officials about planned criminal acts by other prisoners are rats.

Levine continues his assessment of Dunn’s chances in prison by saying, “Eventually, they may move him to restrictive custody, but he’s going to have a target, crosshairs on his back while he’s there because you’re going to have some of the younger gang members that want to make a name for themselves, and you know, they’ll take this guy out.”

But Levine doesn’t stop there. He goes on to describe various prison methods of inflicting violence. He says, “They’ll stick a knife…You can take a toothbrush, turn it into a knife, stick it into his throat, slit his throat open. You can take a pencil, a pen, make a paper-mache knife out of newspaper and kill this guy. So he’s going to have a rough time ahead of him, really.”

Instead of taking a commercial break after the lesson on how to kill someone with a toothbrush and moving on to the next topic, Baldwin asks Levine how Dunn survives that. Levine answers, “He could ally himself, potentially, with maybe the Aryan Brotherhood or one of the white gangs. If I was him right now, what I’d be doing is having somebody send in a book perhaps on self-defense…But who knows, the White Supremacists, they may view this guy as some kind of hero for killing the black teenager or something. So he really-that’s really his only option, to ally himself up or live in protected custody the rest of his term…”

So CNN’s expert consultant, when asked what Michael Dunn can expect in prison, says he can expect to get shanked in the throat with the sharp end of a toothbrush and his only hope of survival is to join a white supremacist gang. Is this the same kind of advice Larry Levine gives his clients at a thousand dollars a pop for his FEDTIME101 Survival Program?

Do acts of violence occur in prison? Every day. Are there prison gangs in existence solely to offer protection? Absolutely.  Larry Levine’s appearance and vocabulary may go a long way in establishing street cred with convicted criminals, but neither plays well in the professional environment of news reporting. The bigger questions are whether Michael Dunn’s expectations upon entering prison are newsworthy to begin with and whether or not this was responsible journalism on CNN’s part? I believe the answer is no on both counts.

fav7With the announcement of four arrests related to the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, drug dealers everywhere are establishing new standards – “Be careful who you sell to.” Although this has long been the mantra for those engaging in the sale of illegal narcotics, being careful used to mean making every effort to ensure the buyer was not an undercover cop. No more. Now, the drug dealers have to worry about selling their product to the “wrong person.” Even if that person is not a law enforcement officer. Enter Philip Seymour Hoffman. The wrong person.

Apparently, the New York City Police Department felt compelled to follow every lead and track down those responsible for selling Hoffman the heroin he overdosed on. As a retire law enforcement officer who has conducted thousands of investigations, I am fine with that. Drug dealers should be in jail. All of them. But trust the detective in men on this one, not every overdose victim’s case gets the same amount of attention as an Oscar-winning actor who poked a needle full of heroin into his own arm.

Just ask the family of the last junkie NYPD pulled out of an alley, dead with a syringe still hanging from HIS arm. What kind of investigation did that prompt? A cursory canvass of the neighborhood? “Excuse me. Did anyone see anything? No. case closed-moving on to the next case. Because after all, the “victim” made a choice to inject his own body with poison.”

Am I pointing the accusatory finger at NYPD, alleging the Hoffman case received special treatment? Not at all. Having spent a career working for a municipal government, I fully understand the concept of fecal gravity. When city leaders, or those high in the police department’s chain-of-command, repeatedly have to answer the media’s question, “What are you doing to solve this case?” shit does indeed flow downhill. It lands squarely on the backs of the poor detectives unfortunate enough to be assigned the case.

So if I’m not blaming NYPD, I must be blaming the national news media for their fixation on the Hoffman case, right? Wrong. In our quest for answers, perhaps we should turn to the cartoon character Pogo. Pogo showed remarkable insight into human nature when he said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

We, as a society, are to blame for the never-ending news coverage of the asinine antics, inglorious misfortunes and self-inflicted maladies of the rich and famous. Why? Because we continually tune in, blog about, moan about, speculate about, and steadfastly refuse to stop talking about the latest scandal. We simply refuse to let a story die until we are good and ready. Unfortunately for the aforementioned junkie, we don’t care enough about him to demand justice or keep the story alive in the news.

Am I saying celebrities are evil and don’t deserve an honest investigation into their deaths? Absolutely not. What I am saying is that our society places far too much importance on the lives of some while assigning virtually no value to others.

Joplin. Hendrix. Belushi. Houston. The list goes on and on. All tragic. All too young to die. All with so much to offer. But for every Cory Monteith, there are three or five or twenty addicts who die unnoticed deaths. All tragic. All too young to die. All with so much to offer.

At least Hoffman’s death has once again made addiction a social topic. What are the signs? What can we do? What SHOULD we do? Meanwhile, drug dealers everywhere are revising their “how to” manuals. Just beneath undercover cops in the section titled “People Not to Sell To” is a new entry. Oscar-winning actors.

Rest in peace Philip Seymour Hoffman. We were lucky to witness your immense talent on the big screen. We will be even luckier if we don’t miss the bigger picture.