The Genre Discussion

This could wind up upsetting a few people.

I don’t like Fantasy. Never been a Tolkein fan. Don’t like world-building, dragons, elves, or other imaginary creatures. Something about it that I can’t relate to, not because I don’t have an imagination, but more like no sense of grounding in reality to me.

But…I do appreciate the moral codes, the notions of Good vs. Evil, Chaos vs. Order, and the fight to achieve a goal. These archetypes intrigue me far greater than a battle of huntsman.

I don’t like Romance. NEVER read a Harlequin book. Don’t like Fabio or the images drawn from his physique. Wild emotions, contrived plots, cavalier attitudes, they all seem unreal to me.

But…melodrama is a reality and the notion of romantic attitudes is necessary. They are Human emotions and if you have your heart set on writing about real types of people, emotion is a vital component.

I don’t like Sci-Fi. I grew up with a black rotary phone; now I have a Smartphone. Okay, so I’ve adapted to the techie world, but I don’t want to read about it. Most of it is like Fantasy with technology.

But…since I don’t write Historical Fiction where all technology is eliminated, I have to recognize the progress of the Modern World and use it sparingly within the context of my own writing.

Detractors will ask how many Fantasy or Romance or Sci-Fi books I have read, tell me I’m a fool because I haven’t read this classic or that one, advise me that my premise is unstable because of my lack of extensive reading. That argument holds no weight. Whether you are an avid reader or a writer, choices have to be made. There is only so much time for all the artistic components when you consider the rest of your daily obligations.

I have chosen to read certain genres or the specific books that I like that suit my needs as well as my pleasures. It is disingenuous to attempt to satisfy someone by implying that I will read a recommendation on their part if the genre doesn’t suit me. I would prefer suggestions to be based on their knowledge and understanding of my interests, not theirs. If I have read about a classic piece of Fantasy or Romance or Sci-Fi, I might suggest it to you. But I won’t turn around and suggest you read a good Chandler or Ellroy, knowing full well that your interests lay elsewhere.

Point me in the right direction and I promise not to lead you astray. We may be able to find common ground as writers or readers of different genres. If we do, all the better. If not, I’ve already got an extensive book list, so thank you just the same.

The Writer or the Writing

Okay, try this out. You read a new novel or a short story or a collection of poetry. You are highly impressed. What’s the first thing you do?

Do you look up the author on Google or Wikipedia? I do. I can’t help myself. I like the work but I’m more interested in the author. This isn’t usually the case with looking up the director of a movie or the painter of a work of art. But with fiction, something within us wants to know about the person who created the work.

We SHOULD be going on to Amazon to find other works so we can read more by this person who has intrigued us with their abilities. But instead we focus on the person.

This is the premise behind my current work-in-progress (currently on hold per my last blog post). It is a metafiction titled The Novel Titled “This is Not a Novel.” The title itself is an enigma. The work purports to be the fictional biography of a writer named H.B. Berlow….written by myself, a writer whose name is H.B. Berlow. Then it deviates into various biographies or other works of fiction by various writers from past times whose initials were the same. A literary joke, a pretentious conceit, or food for thought? It is intended to be the latter.

While it is true that some authors’ personal histories are intriguing to the point where they would “make a good story”, I truly believe that, marketing aside, the focus should be squarely on the work itself. Literary critics use all aspects of a work to provide erudite analysis. What they do not do is talk about the author’s life.

Take the example of B. Traven, the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which was made into the Academy Award winning film starring Humphrey Bogart. This individual did everything possible to cloud the history, circumstances, and details of his life. To this day, there is no concrete answer. By doing this, he has unintentionally diverted interest in his work to the mystery of his life.

All of which makes me ask the question: Why is the author’s life more significant than his work? For right now, I am going to keep living and keep writing. I hope you will still be interested.

This kinda sucks

I realized it has been a long time since I’ve added anything to this tale of my journey as a writer. This is, I realize, largely due to the fact that the train has slowed somewhat dramatically. An extended and long distance effort to finalize my late mother’s estate has drained me to the point of mental and emotional exhaustion. A labor-intensive home renovation project has made me feel trapped in my own home. And, of course, the “joy” of the holidays is upon us.

I just wish this year would end.

To free myself of burdens, I’ve departed from a writer’s support group that I started and effectively ended my critique group. I’ve been able to sneak in two or three editing sessions on one of the four projects I was actively working on at the time that everything came to a head.

But, it occurred to me that I have other responsibilities as a married man, a homeowner, a full-time employee. I have accepted these responsibilities unlike the carefree days of a Bohemian poet in Boston twenty years ago. I can’t write every day as some mantras declare. As it turns out, sometimes you can’t write at all.

I have stated in the past that the most invigorating times are when I am writing or with other writers. This has not dissipated. However, I have not stopped BEING a writer merely because I am not actively writing. I read, every day at work. (Currently on Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman as a way to inform my own work of metafiction.) I peruse my non-fiction books at home. I play around on the internet seeking general information or go off on a research tangent simply as a way to jump-start my brain.

In essence, I realize that I am not fading away (although from a social networking sense, I HAVE been rather quiet). From a literary standpoint, I would call it more like hibernation. Yes, there is still the issue of my mother’s estate and finishing the remodel and getting through the holidays. But The Writer is still alive.

Nevertheless, this still kinda sucks.

A Conflict of Interest: Real Life vs. Writing

I’m actually two people. First, there’s the married homeowner with a full-time job who has not won the lottery nor is independently wealthy and needs to pay the bills. Then, there’s the Writer. You see my dilemma?

Twenty-five years ago, living in a rooming-house in Boston, with a job at a music store, and only my friends and integrity to concern myself with, Real Life was something other people had. There were jobs with shirts and ties, mortgages,cars with insurance and gas tanks, and social obligations that had nothing to do with Artistic Development. Those people must have been boring, I reasoned. The only thing I needed to do was to get to work on time, pay my landlady on time, and get to a myriad of poetry readings at a respectable time.

Time is now a dictator, setting the parameters and authorizing the schedule. No, I don’t wear a shirt and tie, but I do have a mortgage and a car with insurance and a gas tank to fill, and household obligations that far exceed my social desires. Writing is just another chore that gets fit in like mowing the lawn or taking out the garbage. It’s not anywhere as droll as those tasks but its place in my life is about as mundane.

Now, I could tell you that I am most fulfilled when I’m writing and I enjoy most the company of other writers and be passionate when I say these things. However, the words are not going to alter the undeniable facts of personal responsibility. Those “youngsters” I watch in the coffeehouses, genuflecting and bemoaning their McJobs and lack of financial resources and their emotional angst amuse me when I think that the last time they mowed a lawn was as a teenager to earn a few extra dollars. Eating out is far simpler than going grocery shopping and less time-consuming. Fewer possessions mean less maintenance. Their lives should be far simpler than mine. So, why are they complaining so much.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. I recognize that there are Priorities and Responsibilities that supersede Desires. I might not always have enough time to write and to discuss writing. That’s okay. As long as I never lose the DESIRE to write, as long as I never allow Real Life to drown the Writer, I should be just fine.

I hate lists, but here’s one anyway.

Recently, my nephew’s girlfriend was telling me about a story she was writing. Just took up writing recently but she’s already been doing some acting in high school.

The son of my wife’s cousin reached out to me, wanting to know how to be a better writer. Says he enjoys English class and takes honors courses.

All of a sudden, it would appear, young people are considering either my publishing history or my accessibility in terms of being a viable go-to person. I hesitate to use the word ‘mentor’ because I don’t know what it means in this day and age. Nevertheless, I feel honored and pressured not to disappoint.

So, I came up with some random thoughts, heartfelt enough to be taken seriously but generic enough to fit into any circumstance. I can’t rightly call them Rules because I certainly don’t follow any. I knew what they were until I broke them. After all, how can explain Transgressive Fiction and Metafiction? I wouldn’t presume to call them Guidelines because I don’t want anyone to follow my path or some other successful writer’s path. I want them to find their own way.

Therefore, these are just “H.B’s Thoughts on Writing” and you can take them for what their worth.

(1) Writers are essentially story-tellers. Technical proficiency comes in second.

(2) Write so that your reader is invested in the story you are telling.

(3) Be true to the story. It knows how it needs to be told. A writer’s task is to discover that way.

(4) Write for yourself. Edit for publication.

(5) Know what has come before you. Read those works similar to your interests in order to identify your own voice.

(6) Writing is a solitary endeavor. Sharing the frustrations and struggles doesn’t have to be.

(7) Your first draft is not ready for publication. Neither is your second.

(8) Your third draft is probably not ready for publication. But know when to stop. Overthinking can undermine the passion and joy you have infused into your work.

(9) If you don’t believe, neither will your reader.

(10) Don’t: Think about; Talk about; Plan to; Contemplate; Consider — Writing. Just do it. Just write.

Something…different!

Did you ever want to write something…just because? Wasn’t sure what you were doing of if it would make sense or (better still) if it would sell? Had the gut feeling (or maybe that tingling in the back of your neck) that it was something that you HAD to write.

Happened to me.

A while back, I came up with an intriguing notion to write the fictional biography of a writer named H.B. Berlow. It sounded weird but mildly intriguing. I figured there were all kinds of characters in literature and there might actually be a person currently or previously living that had the same name as a fictional character. What if Holden Caulfield or Scarlett O’Hara or Leopold Bloom or Elizabeth Bennet are living somewhere in Illinois or Louisiana or Utah or Rhode Island. Fictional character’s names are not unique, despite what we may think.

Then, I read an article in Writer’s Digest that referenced metafiction and I looked up the meaning (from Wikipedia: “…a literary device used to self-consciously and systematically draw attention to a work’s status as an artifact) and realized that I was on to something. I was going to confuse people into believing that this “fictional” biography was nothing more than a roman a clef cleverly disguised.

As I began, it started to get, well, out of hand. The whimsical side of me then turned it into the fictional biography of a mid-century Polish poet who was a survivor of the Holocaust. On top of that, I created an early 20th century writer who was writing a fictional biography of a writer from the late 20th century. Strangely enough, all these characters had the same initials as…you guessed it…me.

Okay, so I’m working on a dark comic crime caper with my critique group but I break out into this seriously over-the-top piece like characters break into song from a 1940’s MGM musical. I enjoy writing crime fiction; it’s my bread and butter. However, there is something strongly fascinating about this work because it challenges a reader’s notion of the intention of the writer, the purpose and reason for the existence of the book, and whether the writer can be trusted with this abstract thing called the Truth.

The first draft is done. It’s really a novella given the word count. I’m putting it aside. For now. It was an impulse that needed venting. However, the themes that have emerged from writing it have given me pause to consider what it is I do as a writer and to take greater care to present my best work possible.

Oh, and the title of this work is — The Novel Titled “This is Not a Novel”. Go figure.

The Ideal Imperfection of Humanity

A guy my wife works with gave me a Charlie Parker CD that he burned…from an album. It was completely cool because I am totally into Bird and Be-Bop. Every so often, I would hear it — the pop or click of the old albums. I was amazed knowing that was something that was acceptable back when I started listening to music.

Audiences today are jaded. I look at the original King Kong or The Wizard of Oz and I am blown away by the special effects, recognizing just how it was impressive back then. Now, we think of how drab and unrealistic they aware because of our computer generated brilliance.

When I started reading as a child, I paid no attention to Point of View or Active vs. Passive language. These were concepts I would learn in school. All I cared about was story and character and setting. I wanted to be swept along by some fascinating tale in a colorful and intriguing world peopled by strange and unusual characters. Along the way, I got smart and that just about ruined everything for me.

I am not suggesting to any writer that you ignore the noble concept of craft or that you disregard hundreds of years of literary history. It is just as important to remember that we are, in essence, nothing more than story-tellers. We must captivate our readers/audience with tales to bewilder and amaze. And if there is a choice to be made between craft and story, choose story, as long as it is strong enough to carry you through the potential criticisms of perfectionists.

That CD, the Charlie Parker album, makes me feel like I’m in the 50’s or 60’s, a hip college kid discovering jazz for the first time. If I allowed myself, I COULD declare that the recording is flawed. But I love Bird. And it’s just about perfect to me.

#OWFI14 (Part 2)

I hadn’t noticed it before but the speakers at the conference were referred to as ‘faculty.’ Above anything else, this shows the organizations desire to present an educational showcase for writers, whether it is about craft or marketing. This year’s conference was especially balanced between both.

I attended two sessions by Jerry Simmons, the first on competing with the big publishing houses and the second on marketing. There was a hopefulness about the first session, clear ideas regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the big business model and the intricacies of weaving yourself in between. When you’re a small writer looking to get bigger, this kind of template is encouraging.

I spoke with Christine Taylor-Butler prior to attending her session on making a career as a writer. Her bio indicated she had attended M.I.T. and since I’m from New England, it was nice to reminisce. Plus, she lives in Kansas City currently. Her session addressed the aspects of a writing career that are parallel to any other careers and the idea of remaining professional.

It was David Morrell who sounded the most like your favorite professor in college. Small wonder given the fact that he was a professor in college. He spoke of writing a chase/fight scene that took place in a darkened room and the need of using other sensory input beyond sight. That one example and the internal consideration of it was worth the price of the conference alone.

This, ultimately, is what makes for a good writer’s conference. I am not at an spectacularly major stage of my writing career. I know I have so much more to learn in all aspects of this business. The socializing and camaraderie is vital and necessary. However, to come out of this event with a twinkle in my eye, a buzz in my ears, and a head floating with possibilities, makes it the kind of investment that has already paid rich rewards.

#OWFI14 (Part 1)

Too busy tweeting and Facebooking this past weekend to post on the blog. Was at the OWFI Conference for the third year in a row. It’s not an overly large affair but it draws a variety of writers from the region who are adept at various genres. It is really nice to attend a well-organized conference put together by a caring and supportive writer’s group.

For me, it was an opportunity to get together with old Kansas friends and new Oklahoma friends and, of course, make new friends. It really makes no difference what your age is or how many books you have published. When writers get together, they are all friends.

This year’s conference was especially rewarding as well as particularly challenging. My mother passed away the day before. Several people were surprised I was in attendance. But since my parents had always supported my writing endeavors, my presence was as much to honor them as it was to further my prospects.

It is always fun to be around my publisher, Dan Case of AWOC.com. He’s fun and funny and, more important, perceptive. I trust his instincts. That is important for a writer to have that kind of relationship with his publisher.

Now, before we get to the nuts and bolts of the conference itself and the great faculty they had, we’ll start out with a story that, fortunately, did NOT set the tone for the weekend. I got up at 5:40 am on Friday morning with the intention of working out at the hotel’s facilities. By 5:50 I was in the elevator which came to a bit of a thud on the first floor. I recognized that it was an unusual sound, so much so that it didn’t surprise me when the door didn’t open. I just pushed the call button.

The glass wall of the elevator was in sight of the front desk. I saw the security guard come over to the landscaped area on the first floor. I had to mime my cell phone number because I couldn’t hear him through the glass. Using the kind of logic that is employed by overseas tech support call centers, he instructed me to push a series of buttons. Like, all of them. This brilliant move did not work. I was advised that it would be about fifteen minutes before the maintenance man came.

Well, it was nearly three times that long. Forty minutes later, 6:30 am, the maintenance man extricated me from this tomb and apologized. The security guard apologized. The front desk staff apologized. I indicated that I expected more than just an apology. They comped my room for one night and three in a goody basket of munchies and snacks.

By the time I got to the gym, the ellipticals and treadmills were already in use. Fortunately the conference was much better than its dubious beginnings.

I’m not cheating on you.

So, I’ve made my first forays into publishing with the hard-boiled neo-noir “Swan Song” and the procedural thriller “The 9 mm Solution”. The part of me that’s business oriented says “Continue on with the mystery/thriller/crime genre. The writer says “Stretch your wings.”

I listened to the writer. I’ve started work on a contemporary fiction piece dealing with grief and loss. A 50-something uptight Midwesterner, a recent widower, now has to cope with the suicide of his estranged daughter, learning that she was a lesbian. His daughter’s partner is distrustful of the man and has her own issues dealing with the notion that her partner simply left her with no explanation. It’s probably the most emotional piece I’ve ever attempted.

Alongside that, I am attempting a work of metafiction: the fictional biography of a writer named H.B. Berlow, who bares an uncanny resemblance to, well, me. It’s liberating and strange and somehow freeing. I turn to it on occasion when it’s late and I’m tired and have had perhaps an extra martini.

However, my main effort has been on the contemporary fiction. It utilizes everything I have ever learned about writing. And I’m learning more. But after the last meeting with my critique group, I realized that I did not fully understand the two main characters. Granted, I am closer in disposition (gender, age, etc.) to the father. Yet, the lesbian partner is an image and not yet flesh and blood. I have gotten great feedback but I realized I wasn’t ready to proceed.

Initially, I thought I would try to be a plotter. I was rather meticulous as to where I wanted the story to go. After ten pages, I had reached where I thought I would be after fifty. The plot got thrown out the window and I went back to being a pantser. Now this further stumbling block.

I decided it was best to let it sit for a bit, gel a little more, and allow the characters to come to me and present themselves. This way I could tell their story. Therefore it’s back to the metafiction. I’m not sure how much wackiness I can deal with several nights in a row. I do want to let the contemporary fiction piece know one thing: I’m not cheating on you. I’m not giving you up for a more fun and adventurous lover.

It is difficult when you are working on things from two diametrically opposed genres not to think in this fashion. If you are as passionate as I am as a writer, you know what I mean. It’s not easy to put one aside and say “We’ll get together later.” Hey, how would you feel?

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