Aphorisms on Writing

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Too often, we rely on massive tomes that deal with the subject of writing, literary analysis relating to Point of View, Character Development, Story Arc, etc. These books are worthwhile but tend to make a writer feel more like a student and less intuitive.

Over the past two days, I have been inspired to put aphorisms on writing on my Facebook page. Those writers who follow me have seen and liked or commented. I realized that this forum is largely devoted to writing and the writing life, so I felt it was prudent to share with readers here.

Any and all comments are welcome.

“The craft of writing requires immaculate patience as well as a freedom from reality.”

“Since words may be used as both tools and weapons, be careful how you approach a writer.”

“The story must be told…in a fashion suitable for the story, not the reader.”

“Translating my words through your experience will undoubtedly alter the intent of the work. But, then again, that IS the intent.”

Genre is simply the language of writing. It may be foreign to you but you can understand it if you try.”

“We never truly say what we mean. Therefore, dialogue should hide more than it reveals.”

“Writing in a linear fashion WILL get you from Point A to Point B. Which is fine if all you want to do is get to Point B.”

“The writer must divest themself from the truth in order to allow honesty to emerge. Unfortunately, there is too much of him in his own work which causes him to lie.”

“The notion that there is a limited number of plots is predicated on the concept that there are a limited number of eyes reading the story.”

“There are stories to be found in all five senses.”

Diversification

It is vitally important as writers to be diversified. I do not necessarily mean writing in several genres or different voices. But it is painfully obvious that maintaining a kind of singularity will stunt one’s creative growth. I suppose if you have become wildly successful and are off-loading the majority of your work to ghost writers, you can do as you please, assuming you no longer care about your muse.

I prefer to write first-person crime fiction. There is a certain comfort zone that has developed over many years. However, knowing that I wish to explore all the possibilities that writing can offer, I am currently working on a piece of contemporary fiction as well as an off-the-wall metafiction. I won’t stray too far, just enough to find out what else is out there and how it can aid me.

It is also necessary to diversify with regard to your associations, the other writers that are both within and outside of your geographic circle as well as your scope of influence. At the beginning of May, I will be attending the OWFI Conference for the third year in a row. I felt like such a newbie the first year; now I actually KNOW some people. And they are not all from the same genre or level of experience or success. This is what makes it beneficial.

This past weekend, I attend the Northwest High School Spring Fling, a fundraiser for their Performing Arts Booster Club. Think of it: Helping high school kids with the performing arts. Not exactly the kind of venue for a writer of crime fiction. Or was it?

I had the good fortune to spend the afternoon with three other writers, talking about writing, attempting to sell our works. We come from different backgrounds and work in different genres and yet the one thing that remains consistent is that we are all storytellers. That IS the essence of who we are as writers.

Bonnie Tharp’s book, Feisty Family Values, will give any reality show a run for its money in both humor and pathos but has more honesty than any creation on television.

In Maggie Vaults Over the Moon, Grant Overstake has captured a magical and mystical tiger by the tail in this story of a Kansas farm girl overcoming tragedy through pole-vaulting.

If you can imagine a young boy saving a civilization of humanoids living on a dirty gym sock under his bed, then you’ll certainly be floored by Louise Galveston’s By the Grace of Todd.

It was these three that I shared an afternoon with as I set up a display of Swan Song, a neo-noir hard-boiled story that takes place in the very community where I was helping raise funds for a high school performing arts booster club.

No one said it had to make sense.

But there we were, the four of us, eating chips and chicken salad sandwiches and talking about what it was like to be a writer; the issues with finding agents, editors, and publishers; the marketing and networking; and, oh yeah, real life, like working and paying the bills and our family and friends and other relationships.

It wasn’t a spectacular sales day for any of us. But it was a day to be around different people, not safely stowed away in the comfort of our homes and offices and around the people who know us and love us and understand the difficulty of what we day. We were out among the readers and each of us was looking for that one special person to connect with and say “Hey, maybe something I wrote will connect with you.”

There’s only one way to do that: Get out there and diversify.

It doesn’t have to be controversial. Or does it?

I am thrilled to announce the publication of my second book, The 9 mm Solution, now available on Amazon Kindle. It’s been another fascinating association with Dan Case, the publisher of Deadly Niche Press, an imprint of AWOC.COM.

This procedural finds a team of FBI profilers trying to determine the identity of an unknown subject who is doling out a special brand of justice to various perpetrators who have escaped justice by means of a single 9 mm bullet. The three main characters are: Harrison Bradley, the up-and-comer who is fascinated by solving the intellectual puzzle; Gordon Figueroa, the veteran who watched his uncle burn out doing the same job; and the unknown subject who seems to be very logical with regard to his methods.

This story came from years of discussion with my brother-in-law regarding the judicial and penal system in this country. It is not unlike the original Dirty Harry, or the more recent films, The Boondock Saints and Harry Brown. This was meant to be an entertainment, nothing particularly controversial. But perhaps it is.

The news today is filled with stories of a country divided by ideals regarding religion, economics, and basic freedoms. I didn’t intend to stir the pot any more than your highly paid, good-looking, intellectually deficient news personality. Perhaps my approach is more thought-provoking.

It would be truly interesting to provide a copy of the book to a member of the NRA and anti-gun advocate, let them read it from cover to cover, and then sit back and discuss the moral merits (or lack thereof) in the book. As moderator, you will never find me expressing my opinions; it’s a book and I’m the writer and not running for public office.

Several books in history have stirred up controversy and altered the course of a social agenda. Consider Silent Spring by Rachel Carson or The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I certainly do not mean to place my work in that lofty environment. However, precedents have been set. Certainly, there is already a discussion regarding gun rights and new conversations open up every time there is some stark tragedy.

Ok, so this book was written as an entertainment. Hopefully those who buy it will think of it in that fashion. And, no, it doesn’t need to be controversial. But I hope to heck it is.

Something different.

You write, let’s say, crime fiction and you enjoy writing it. You’ve developed a technique and a style and you have finally found your voice. Others have read your work, whether as a manuscript or in book form or as an eBook, and they like what you do. They’re even waiting for the next work.

Then you realize you hate what you’re doing because it’s no different from brushing your teeth, something you’ve done countless times that the only thing to make sure of is wiping your mouth and not getting any dried toothpaste on your beard. It occurs to you that you could become as drab and droll a writer as you were when you were starting out.

So, what do you do? Something different.

Too often, we get caught up in the ease of the familiar because (let’s face it) writing is difficult. It requires more than just creativity. It requires patience and complex analysis and a quietude that is usually not available in the modern world of employers and homeowners and spouses. Once you’ve found your center, your “happy place”, it makes no sense to change. Right?

That’s just the time when you’ve come to the crossroads of doing what is easy and taking a chance for the sake of your writing, your art, your very creativity. Writer’s Block is nothing compared to the feeling that you’re writing the same story over and over and over again. Different city, different character names, maybe a different crime.

Without having to go back to school, literally, it’s easy to school yourself. You certainly know that you like more than one genre. You’ve even talked about it, perhaps years ago or just recently. The thing that holds you back is “I don’t know how to write X genre” and you figure it’s just too much of a hassle to figure it out. This is the perfect time to try so that you can stretch your capabilities. It’s still everything you have learned thus far about writing just filtered through a different stylistic tendency.

It is important to remember that very few people established their desires by saying “I want to be a Romance writer” or “I want to be a Horror writer” but rather, after encountering a piece of fiction that took us someplace we had never been before, we said with the utmost certainty “I want to be a Writer.”

So, you can continue on your path to almost certain boredom, the well of ideas dried up, and your creative spirit too weakened to continue on. Or, you can do something different.

Poetry: To read or to hear?

For a moment, let us set aside Spoken Word, as it is, by its very nature, meant to be performed, read aloud, absorbed by your ears. It does make use of hip-hop rhythms, intricate patterns of rhyme and syntax. However, as its focus is primarily on performance, we will not consider it for this discussion.

Poetry. Prosody. Free verse or formed structure. First laid down on paper, arranged by line and stanza. There it sits, to be read and viewed and taken for its overall aspect. You can see end rhymes as easily as you can hear metrics. Some would say that it is not alive until it is vocalized, placed into the ether for those willing ears to encounter.

Then there is the poet who has mastered his voice and sense of projection, who knows the nuances of highlighting the words which will create the most emotional impact. Regardless of the form or structure or word choice, this is a piece of work that captivates. Or does it?

I have spent several nights over the last year going to poetry readings in Wichita and talking at length with writers who are looking to capture something essential of Human Nature in their work. They are to be commended for their efforts. In doing this, I have had to take a two-sided look at the nature of poetry. In sitting quietly and listening to a person recite their work, I seek out tonal qualities, in essence, the musicality of the piece. Separated from the paper, there is no sense of metrics other than what the writer reads into it. This makes the piece’s success completely dependent upon the vocal recitation.

Additionally, I have had the opportunity to view the written work and found that, in some cases, the lines are too long (akin to a modern-day Walt Whitman) yet with no intent toward metric consideration or syllabic count. They are lines placed as written. Perhaps there are good word choices, turns of phrase, sensationalized allusions. Every once in a while, there is a poem that looks like…well, a poem.

There is no intention at being dismissive. The world of writing and literature has changed and is allowed to change. But I still believe that poetry to be a metrically conscientious effort in which words dance separately from the images they are trying to evoke. We should be able to hear the poet’s voice in the silence of our own minds as we read. If a poem works only because it is being read in an ideal fashion, it is not, to me, a complete success.

So, as I continue to venture forth to these events, I enjoy what I am hearing. In the end, I want to be able to enjoy reading it as well.

Where Are You on the Time Continuum?

There will always be a debate regarding your individual relationship to the Past, Present, and Future. On a personal level, there is much to be said. Is there an event from your past that has permanently marked you and defined you? Are you afraid of your future to the extent that you focus intently on the here-and-now? I’m not here to discuss or contemplate those issues. As previously stated, this blog discusses the writer and the writing life.

So, let’s talk about what we do as writers in terms of past, present, and future. I know much of what I write in the past was, well, crap. I re-read it and see how much out of my element I was. I’m proud of my “creativity”, the notion that I had good ideas. But the overall execution was poor, to say the least. Currently, with one published novel and another on the way, I can definitely say I’ve gotten better. But is that enough? To have moved from ‘crap’ to ‘better’ is an improvement but not an ultimate goal. So what IS the ultimate goal?

I have a delightful piece of Transgressive Fiction which is well-developed but could be expanded. I’m currently working on a piece of meta-fiction as well as a novel of contemporary literary fiction. Additionally, based on my associations with a small but impressive group of poets, I have started writing poetry again. It is obvious that I am willing to move forward. But in what direction?

My association with my current publisher is solid. However, if I provided him with something totally off the wall, would he be interested? Do I do a sequel to my first published piece simply because a couple of reviewers suggested it be done? Is it reviews, royalties, or literary satisfaction that I am seeking?

The bottom line goal is perfecting the craft of writing. In this attempt, it may take several methodologies, many different courses of action. As a married homeowner with a full-time job, can I afford to be artistic or should I focus on commercial success?

There are not rhetorical questions nor are they even answerable. If I am fortunate enough to awake each morning, there is a protocol that must be followed with desires interspersed. What has happened has brought be to this point. What I do will take me forward. A sense of hope permeates my thoughts of tomorrow.

So, where are you?

I don’t know what it is, but it’s new.

We have so many expressions to describe changes in our lives. A new beginning. Turning over a new leaf. A fresh start. And too often we use the arbitrary time period of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day to make declarations, those ever-present resolutions. I am not entirely certain that I have begun anew. Rather, transitioned or morphed, continuously progressed as both a person and a writer and artist. Let’s make some declarations to identify the current mind-set.

Initially, this blog was to allow me to discuss my two passions: writing and cooking. I have shared some interesting pictures and recipes but I have already encountered so many other blogs who are far more passionate regarding their culinary pursuits. They spend far more time photographing and offering recipes that I will have to leave you with my favorite expression — It’s All About The Food! — and leave it at that. At heart, I am a writer and an artist. Whereas I always want to be known as a person who makes a tasty dish, I’d rather ultimately be known for my art. That being said, this blog will focus on The Writing Life and my experiences within that realm.

I am no longer actively involved with any writing groups. For six years I was a member of one, going so far as to be president for 10 months. Unfortunately, the rigors of the position, the lack of participation from most of the other board members, and the sense that it was more of a social and networking group dedicated solely to getting published, left a bitter taste in my mouth. As the new year begins, I will not renew my membership. I have left their Facebook page as it no longer offers me anything of benefit. There was another local group that I thought of joining. Unfortunately, at their recent conference, there was a pathetic plea to acquire newer and younger members. Parallel to that was the almost obliviousness that these older folks had no clue as to what the newer and younger members want or need.

I prefer to spend my time in smaller groups, at poetry readings where people of all ages and all types meet and, working through their nerves, read their work hoping for validation, commentary, suggestion, and encouragement. These people focus on craft, the art of writing, far more than the immediacy of publication and the corresponding marketing that is necessary. I have, for the past six months, been involved in a critique group. This comes nearly twenty years after the passion of being surrounded by poets in Boston in the mid 90′s. Friends who would read your work over and over as you would for them. Scintillating conversations that led to real development. Now, older and hopefully wiser, I recognize the benefits of my small group.

Writing conferences still hold value for me. I will be attending the same one for the third year in a row this year, going back with product to sell and discuss, and reconnecting with some very interesting writers who have become friends. This is the best of all worlds.

There is no way for me to denigrate NaNoWriMo. My first attempt was in 2007. Five years later, that effort (after much revision) became “Swan Song”. The weekend after Thanksgiving, during a promo through BookBub, it rose to #2 on Amazon’s ranking of free e-books.

By the same token, I undertook the 30 day challenge at a time when I needed to jump-start my writing. I continued for five more years, “winning” each time. However, the last three efforts lacked any viable story elements to continue construction/reconstruction/editing. It proved I could do it. I started thinking of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” continually writing “All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy’ and calculated that composing that sentence 5000 times would make me a NaNoWriMo winner. I no longer need to jump-start my writing and I no longer wish to write at such a pace. The craft of writing dictates a more meticulous approach, one that is both calculating and passionate, one that savours the sound and feel of the words more than their weight.

So, I did not participate in 2013 and I do not intend to participate for the foreseeable future. I’m working on a different timetable and the people I associate with are as passionate about the craft and art of writing as I am.

I am going to explore more of the world of social networking as much as I can within the time constraints of being a married homeowner who is a full-time employee. I’ve added Instagram and Tumblr to my repertoire and will attempt to tweet more often. My hope is to find more like-minded people: artists of any sort (writers, poets, musicians, photographers, etc.) who have a definite passion for their craft and can appreciate the inter-connectivity between these media as well as mathematics and science. I know we can create something greater by piecing together ALL that is around us.

My personal goals are shared between myself and my loved ones. This venue is for writers and artists. Let’s talk. Let’s share ideas. I welcome all who currently follow to reply and let us all know where you are at with your work; what you want to achieve; how we can be a resource for your efforts. Knowing how much joy I get from reading and critiquing others’ works and how it makes me better has made me enjoy being a ‘teacher’ and mentor as much as a motivator.

So, is this a new leaf, a fresh start? No, not really. It’s just me, H.B. Berlow, Writer and Artist, moving forward. And it will be all new.

A Dream Come True?

It’s easy to say “Someday…” and fill in the blanks. It is definitely easy to do that as a kid or young adult. Perhaps as you get older and the responsibilities of Modern Life take precedence, you get the feeling that “Someday” is less of a possibility and more of a pipe dream.

I always wanted to be a writer. I started my fascination with words in first grade when the teacher had us put each of the ten new vocabulary words into a sentence. I was hooked. And then there were creative writing classes in high school and a college major in Creative Writing and Film-making with an emphasis on screenwriting. And then…?

I had the good fortune of being associated with many talented writers and poets in the early 90′s and did a lot of good work. But nothing was getting me closer to my dreams of publication and anything resembling success. Between then and now are far too many steps to count off but suffice it to say that when I got my first book published (“Swan Song”) on Christmas Day of 2012, I considered it a wonderful present. I had no expectations of immediate success or best-seller lists or awards. The first step had been accomplished.

But then, right before Thanksgiving, my publisher e-mails me to tell me that he’s running a promo on it to allow free downloads exclusively on Amazon Kindle for the weekend after the holiday. Okay, that sounded good. But then when it reached #2 on Amazon’s Seller Ranking list, I was flabbergasted. The final count was 36,834 downloads. Now, I realize that many people take advantage of free offerings and some may not even read it. But then, the next day, Cyber Monday, my ranking for sales went from 900,000-something all the way up to 804.

Wow!

Maybe some who are more into all of this technology would think that my exultation is a little short-sighted, that I was only in the top 1000, and that I haven’t done all that much. But, to be honest, to my family, friends, and acquaintances, it was a big deal. The greatest thing it has done is to offer the continuation of Hope.

My publisher has advised that the next book is coming out soon. Maybe it will be on Christmas day again, maybe sooner. But these past two years I have received the greatest gifts of all: an opportunity to watch a childhood dream start to unfold.

Yahrzeit

The title is a Hebrew word meaning “soul candle” and is lit in memory of the dead in Judaism. In two days, October 18, 2013, it will be the one-year anniversary of the passing of my father. I will light a candle in his honor. It feels like I should do something more, say something…more. I eulogized him on this site shortly after his passing. Did I say enough?

He was two months short of his 90th birthday, having lived 77 years past contracting polio. It would be easy to marvel at those numbers; however, his post-polio disorders ravaged his body toward the end of his life. He was a man of intellect and chose to fight everything with his mind. In the end, that was not enough. It never is.

And so, selfishly, I look inward, to my own life, and outward, into the mirror. The resemblance grows stronger from year to year, even insofar as attitude is concerned. Physical ailments limit me at times but I do not run from those limitations. He would be proud. He was creative. I found several poems dating from the 40′s through the 70′s and realized that he may not have had the same time of creative circle that I am blessed with. While I taught myself Windows Movie Maker at the age of 46, he bought his first computer at the age of 79. We do not shrink from challenges, he and I.

What I realize is that he was not prepared for the end, did not focus on his own spirit, his own soul. He was so devoted to my mother, his wife of 65 years, that as the end approached, he was struggling to come to terms with what was beyond, something he doubted for much of his life. I would like to believe he is comforted now, free of all ailments, patiently waiting (as patiently as men from my family can be) for an eternal reunion.

In the long run, life IS short, no matter the numbers we are assigned. We will never read every book, listen to every piece of music, watch every film, eat every food, go to every interesting place. That is a given and a certainty. But we must strive to learn of the world beyond our circle, our comfort zone. In this way we will be enriched. We must openly acknowledge the all-too-often pettiness of daily life, the inconsequential things that we have declared to be omnipotent, in search of the ever-so-slight magical moments, where often words have no meaning. In this fashion, we can light a candle for our own souls now, while we still live and breathe, and praise the life we have been given.

This post is not about writing nor about food. This is a momentary respite from the madness. This is my reflection. This is my tribute.

Biting the hand?

My first experience with NaNoWriMo was in 2007. That work was “Swan Song”, which was published by Deadly Niche Press on Christmas Day 2012. I completed 2008 and then my 2009 effort, “The .9 mm Solution” will be published by the same publisher later this year. I went on to complete three more and “won” NaNoWriMo a total of six times in six years.

So, why aren’t I participating this year? I could simply say that writers must change in order to continue to develop and grow. That might sound hokey but part of it is true. Six years ago, I needed something to jump-start my writing. When I came across the madness of attempting to write a 50,000 word novel in thirty days, I figured I had found the jolt of energy I was looking for. However, in a recent discussion with my wife, she asked about the effort from last year or the year before. She hadn’t read them or even known what they were about. That was because I did nothing with them. Not shortly thereafter nor since.

It had all become simply a race to the finish, finding anyway to make 50,000 words stick to the paper. Spell out numbers and remove hyphens. Do not ever use contractions. Go into elaborate monologues or dialogues. Describe the hell out of something banal. Count those words. No story. No plot. No character. Just words. Okay, and maybe later you go back and form something out of it. Which, in essence is saying “I’m willing to waste 30 days of my life for what essentially is a game.

Hold on before you blame me for biting the hand that fed me and helped me create two novels which were traditionally published. Let’s remember this online international event is only motivation. It has absolutely nothing to do with craft or development, in and of itself. Yes, it is a fun challenge. But unless you’re Joey Chestnut, there is no reason to eat 60+ hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. For seven consecutive years.

I give NaNoWriMo all the credit in the world for motivating me at a time when I needed to just write. They were my training wheels. Now, it is far more important to work on craft, plot development, interesting and yet realistic dialogue, twists, unexpected endings. As a writer I need to find quality words and turns of phrase rather than bulk my manuscript with pabulum. I am no longer impressed with myself or anyone else for “winning”, whether it is in thirty days or ten (because they have so much time on their hands and this seems like fun).

Writing is a long and arduous process that requires your complete attention, not just for thirty days, but always. So, slow down and focus. Pay attention to your writing and leave the games to those who need the motivation.

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