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?

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.

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