Voice

I just started working with a new editor on the follow-up to Ark City Confidential. From one of her earlier e-mails she wrote:

“I enjoy your writing style and the tight control you have on writing.”

This is amazingly gracious especially from an editor. It was also something that got me to thinking more about “my style” and more importantly, my voice. I don’t believe that either develop from a conscious effort. Much as learn and develop your craft, your style and voice emerge from it.

Prior to actually reading classic hard-boiled fiction, I was very interested in film noir, even more so as I was attending the University of Miami in the early 80’s and studying screen writing and film-making. The genre, whose name was coined by the French, emerged from the German expressionists of the 20’s. Blacks and whites and grays combined with disorienting angles all for the purpose of revealing the uglier side of the human condition. Just check out The Lady From Shanghai or Touch of Evil, both by Orson Welles.

Now, I’m not a tough guy by any means. But as I developed a penchant for writing crime fiction, the lyricism of Raymond Chandler, the desolation of Cornell Woolrich, the rugged individuality of Dashiell Hammett, and the scatological poetry of James Ellroy all influenced me. Like ingredients in a fancy cocktail, these authors and their work were shaken up and filtered through my background, my sensibilities, and even my strengths and weaknesses as a person.

I certainly can’t describe my style or my voice. It would be like finding definitive attributes as to why I love my wife. Sometimes a thing exists, can be sensed and experienced without words. This would be the truest irony: being unable to define my own voice.

It is possible that, over time, that voice may change, much in the way that my style has developed up and around the craft itself. For right now, I deeply enjoy getting to know myself as a writer.

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Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…

It’s not my intention to have you visualize Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde from “Reservoir Dogs.” I’m simply using a song to identify a pleasant crossroad for a writer.

I’m currently in the process of submitting the second book in the Ark City Confidential chronicles. (No news yet, but you’ll be the first to know.)

Obviously, there is also continued marketing and exposure for the first book while waiting for the “draft” of the audio book to review once it is prepared. (That means listening to MY book read by someone else. Which is cool and scary at the same time.)

If I get a contract for the second book, there will be a conscientious editing process. Of course, I have been meticulously outlining and researching the third book in the series. (I’ve learned that when you write historical crime fiction, there is more than just character development and plotting.)

I don’t know if the use of ‘crossroad’ earlier was correct. It feels more like being on a single path in which there are marionette-like strings attached to me pulling me backward and forward and holding me in place all at the same time. I’ve never been in this position before, working on the past, present, and future simultaneously.

Not exactly sure if I’m a clown or a joker. Right now, just a writer enjoying the process.

A Tribute to a Black Cat

During the 1930’s, Chandler had a black Persian called Taki. He often spoke to her as if she were human. Sometimes he called her his secretary, because she frequently sat on the paper we was about to use or on copy that needed revising.

I first read this about Raymond Chandler in The Book of Lists 2 under the category 12 CAT LOVERS. The book was published in 1979. Along with it was this photo:

At the time, I was in high school, thinking I might want to be a writer, maybe a journalist, possibly in film-making. I didn’t read classic crime fiction like Chandler and Hammett, preferring mostly to watch the classic noir movies. But the thought struck me that crime novelists had black cats. I mean, what else would they have?

So, time goes along. I study screenwriting in college and didn’t do much with it. Wrote a lot of poetry, mostly tragic sobbing over a bad relationship. Got intellectual but still wasn’t writing anything worth a darn. It was in 2007 that I finally tried NaNoWriMo and the first thing I worked on was a hard-boiled noir crime drama. As dark and nasty as I could get. At the time, Mongo had been part of our household for three years along with Camille (a black and white bi-color) and Rupert (a tuxedo cat). Initially, they reminded me of Butch and Sundance and Etta, with Rupert being Butch (the thinker) and Mongo being Sundance (quick to shoot) and sweet Camille as Etta.

But then, as Mongo started to hang around in the office while I wrote, I was reminded of that Chandler photo and I realized I had Sam Spade, Joel Cairo, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy:

I was writing crime fiction and I finally had my black cat. Now all I needed was the photo:

This was the first take. I was lucky because the rest didn’t come out so well. Maybe Mongo didn’t realize what I was up to at first but he didn’t feel much like cooperating after that. I’m certainly not Raymond Chandler, but this crime writer has HIS photo with his black cat.

Mongo crossed over The Rainbow Bridge two days ago, worn out by his fight against cancer. He was truly a partner who showed me that all the best cat qualities can be found in the characters I put on paper. I will keep writing and keep reminding myself that a black cat possibly taught me more about human nature than over 35 years in customer service.

I’m doing it backwards!

In past posts, I have discussed differing writing styles, tendencies, and trends that I have in comparison to other writers. The “way” they tell you to do it in books. The “best practices” that are instructed in writers conferences or even in schools (although it has been 34 years since I last took a Creative Writing class).

I am a big advocate for doing what works best for the individual. By the time you are connected to an editor through a publisher, your “style” may be forced to change to meet the deadlines placed before you. In the meantime, until you get to that point, write as you wish.

If I actually paid attention to the books and the instruction, I would have to admit that I am doing things…backward! Assuming that the editing and revising process is for chipping away at a bunch of extra stuff you threw in on the first draft, a la a NaNoWriMo effort, all subsequent drafts are a purge and a cleanse. However, I am creating characters and telling a story in my first draft and am driven to just, for lack of a better description, getting it out.

In both my first historical crime fiction, “Ark City Confidential”, as well as the recently completed follow-up, I have come to realize that I am adding on to drafts two and three before purging and cleaning in draft four and onward. I look for logic errors in terms of character description or designation, add scene enhancements to color and flavor, maybe even throw in a red herring I hadn’t considered before.

I remember seeing a video on YouTube by Les Edgerton, who I had met at the OWFI conference a couple of years ago. He was fascinating and had some definitive ideas about writing. In the video, he talked about the process of being meticulous in his first draft in terms of sentence structure, word choice, and storytelling. There was an absolute precision about the first draft, no matter how long it took.

While I respect Les and his craft, that doesn’t work for me. Some people might point to his publishing success as an end result of his process. While there may be a correlation, I enjoy writing, the process of writing, and the craft. Publishing is a by-product of that process. So, while I respect and admire teachers of any sort, I also recognize the myriad methodologies that exist and the countless writers honing their craft.

Direction is a matter of perspective. Am I doing it backwards? Depends upon your point of view.

What’s your style?

With regard to the aforementioned question, I am not inquiring as to genre or even fiction versus non-fiction versus poetry. I have come to realize that all writers have a different style in the manner in which they write. For the longest time, we have accepted the notions of Plotters and Pantsers. Plotters are meticulous and detail-oriented, outlining their stories and creating intricate biographies for their characters. Pantsers, as the name implies, write by the seat of the their pants. They have a rough idea of a story and characters but are content to discover what happens along the way.

As we all realize, there is no correct way or proper methodology. But I would like to present two new concepts to you for thought as well as discussion. Flauberts and Black Maskers.

Gustave Flaubert was a French writer of the mid-nineteenth century, a leading exponent of literary realism, and known especially for his novel “Madame Bovary.” He had a scrupulous devotion to style and aesthetics and pursued the principle of finding le mot juste, “the right word.” There were other prominent French writers in literary realism of the time, including Honore de Balzac and Emile Zola, whose output was far more prodigious than Flaubert. As such, he can only be evaluated by a smaller group of works.

The pulp writers of the 20’s and 30’s, primarily those writing for magazines like the Black Mask, were paid by the word. Too often we find whole sections of action thrillers and crime and mystery fiction to be endless description or first-person narrative that drones on. It’s understandable when you consider the payment structure. However, you might come across a truly brilliant piece of writing, such as Jim Thompson’s “The Killer Inside of Me” that is as haunting as anything Stephen King wrote. These guys have long lists of short stories and novels.

Now this may be nothing more than a new take on the Plotters versus Pantsers. But I’d like to know: Are you a Flaubert or a Black Masker?

So much more to do!

What do you do after you’ve worked hard to write a book in a totally new genre, found a publisher, gone through the editing process, and eagerly awaited the publication date of your book? You write the next one.

But, wait, there’s all that marketing and promotional stuff and advertising and….

Yes, but you still have to write. You ARE a writer, first and foremost

If it feels like my head is spinning, it’s because it is. I made a promise to myself to complete the first draft of the follow up to Ark City Confidential, my Prohibition-era crime novel set in rural Kansas. And I did. This way I could focus on the OWFI conference. Which I also did.

Then, I outlined the third book in the series just because, well, the story was playing around in my mind and needed to at the very least be written down. So, now as I go back to the editing/rewriting process of the second one, I’ve come across more marketing opportunities for the first one and…

Oh, yeah, and I’ve got to make my lunch for work tomorrow and make a list for grocery shopping on Sunday and…

When you are a writer, you are literally in the middle of a tornado. (A fitting analogy for the guy who lives in Kansas.) There is no rest. I mean, here it is, Thursday night, paying bills, and I’m taking the time to write a blog post because I have something to say (wild and chaotic but it is SOMETHING!).

The most important thing to realize is that there is a “business” side to the arts, any discipline, and it has to fit in like a snug jigsaw puzzle piece into the rest of your life. There is so much more to do, yes. And with all this, I am enjoying every moment.

The Obligatory Post-Conference Blog Post

This was my sixth year attending the OWFI conference. That means I know more people now than I did, understand the publishing business with greater awareness, and have a better chance at success. For those writers that don’t attend conferences, allow me to enlighten you on a few things.

“Everything you learn at a conference is the gospel and should be followed to the letter.”
Regrettably, this is a fallacy. Every writer, every faculty member, is different with a different manner of conducting their lives and their writing careers. A conference is designed to offer a smorgasbord of options and possibilities for you to choose from. Pick what works for you, maybe try something different, but always remember you are your own person.

“At a conference, all you’ve got to do is deliver a good pitch and an agent or publisher is going to pick you up and sign you.”
No, unfortunately that’s a fallacy as well. While it is true that agents, editors, and publishers do attend conferences because they are more likely to find a special writer or property, you as the writer still have to make a full and complete effort. Do the research. Bring high quality work. Be professional and respectful. You might have a better opportunity than a cold query but you still have to do the work.

“A conference that is not geared toward my genre is of no use to me.”
Perhaps in terms of specific genres that may make sense. However, the craft of writing and the tools used by writers is the same regardless of genre. Not to mention the fact that you make friends and get your name and face out there (as well as your business card), you are making positive professional steps by showing up and attending.

“A conference is only an excuse to get together with other writers and party.”
Ok, part of this is true. However, all of that happens at the end of the conference when the sessions have ended and the banquet is over and the awards have been given out. Then, as celebratory human beings, writers have been known to imbibe in intoxicating liquid refreshments.

For me, friendships and deeper understanding of this crazy life as a writer is what make these journeys special and spectacular. It takes a great deal of work and effort to write, edit, publish, and market a book. Go to a conference and realize you are NOT alone.

This Will Do Just Fine…For Now

As a writer, do you crave being able to write full-time? Not working for someone else? Creating and managing your own schedule? Beholden to no one but yourself? Yeah, so do I.

Here’s how I imagine my typical day as a full-time writer:

I’d still wake up early because I’ve grown accustomed to working out in the morning. Shower and then spend time with my wife over coffee (because she still works a regular job). After she leaves, a couple of hours of writing. Or, if that day called for it, editing/revising. Late morning, I’d switch over to social networking. Not the aimless “let’s scroll through every account to find out what’s happening” that’s usually done. Instead, there would be a new blog post, directed Tweets, new photos on Instagram, maybe shoot out a newsletter to my e-mail list. (By then, I would have one.) A quick lunch. I love cooking but I don’t cook for me. If the wife had honey-dos or errands for me to run, that’s where the afternoon comes in. I remind her I’m happy to do them, but you’ve got to remember I’d be taking time out from my “job.” I might be able to get in another hour’s worth of writing before she gets home. That’s when I fix dinner. We catch up on the day. I clean up the dishes and it’s writing for the rest of the evening, maybe a little reading. A typical day not including readings, book signings, writer’s conferences, meetings with publishers/agents/editors/anyone important.

Alas…

That job that earns me a regular paycheck requires travel to and from, focus and dedication if I want to keep earning that paycheck. I still squeeze in a bit of networking on breaks and lunch, get some reading done, chat with co-workers who are writers or otherwise artistically inclined. My focus, however, is on the job and being good at it and keeping it. I get the evening to squeeze in writing, blog posts, more social connectivity. That’s what it is, folks. That’s what “Real Life” is. The big paragraph above, that’s a goal, sure, but one that requires an awful lot of work to get to.

Let me be clear: I do not bemoan my life. No matter what you do or desire to do, there is a lot of the mundane you must walk through, like a tropical jungle. And you have a machete in your hand and your chopping away at the vines and plants that are blocking your path. That line from Confucius: It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.

So, I am at a good place. Okay, I’m not a full-time writer. But this will do just fine. For now.

Networking, or Meeting New Friends

I was involved in a chat session last night through my publisher, The Wild Rose Press, discussing networking with other writers. This is an invaluable concept, especially in this digital world. If you are not fortunate enough to be involved in a local critique group or writer’s support group, there are many online venues to stay in touch with other writers, share knowledge, get feedback and suggestions. We don’t compete against each other; we are thrilled for each other’s success and strive to attain our own.

What I find equally enjoyable is networking with readers. I am fortunate to have a small following at work, people who are thrilled to know I had a new book published, Ark City Confidential, and want to own it, perhaps because of the potential of future fame. You know: “Hey, I worked with that guy.”

Beyond the scope of the “real world” I have come across readers and bloggers who enjoy getting their hands on a new book and reviewing it, sharing it within the circle of those who follow THEIR insights. The virtual bookshelves are filled with volumes from countless writers, all reaching out and hoping to find a special audience. So it is these readers and bloggers who light the path ahead and make it easier to find a worthwhile story to download on their Kindle or Nook or tablet. Obviously they are not going to sign off on anything and impugn their integrity. So it is incumbent upon all writers to put forth quality work and reach out to ALL potential readers.

Networking is a way of making new friends with like interests. On one hand it is easier now with all the internet related options. On the other hand, an author has to work harder to present themselves in as true and honest a fashion as possible without the benefit of shaking someone’s hand or looking at them in the eye. My hope is that I have been able to do that.

For your viewing pleasure, please enjoy the book trailer. And if you have purchased the book and read it, please leave a review as this is the ultimate key to an author’s success.

The 10

When I moved to Boston from Florida in 1990, I was literally starting my life over again. I had gotten divorced and had spent eight of the prior ten years in Florida, with it no longer feeling like a home and with nothing to hold me back. Moving back to Boston was like returning to my youth. Of course, at that time I was 28 and uncertain of my future. Nevertheless, it was going to be a fresh start.

Clothes, my writings, and very few personal possessions were my entire world. And books. However, since space was limited (as well as funds for shipping anything significant), I opted to bring only ten books. Twenty-seven years later, I do not recall what they were. Suffice it to say, my house is currently a small library.

It got me to thinking about what were the important books, or rather, what would be THE important books if ever I were in a position of “starting over.” I realized I could make a list now and then later, tomorrow or a month from now, that list might change. My only caveat was that I could not name “complete” volumes or collections, other than poetry. There would also have to be a viable reason for each: WHY were they important. After some thought, here is my list (at least for today) in no particular order:

1) The Bible, Old and New Testaments, King James Version. For the poetry and for the beauty of the language as well as a reminder of my ethical roots.

2) The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. A story of a spiritual journey (which I first read at a low point in my life) seems an obvious choice if I were on a new spiritual journey.

3) Ulysses by James Joyce. I’ve only started it, never delved too far in. Again, the language is magnificent and the story of a journey within a day is impressive.

4) The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Never has murder seemed to be written about with such panache. A major influence on my writing.

5) Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. The intricacies of thought coming from an insurance executive is stunning. Truly a craftsman.

6) Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. Such unbridled passion and lyricism. There is nothing like him today.

7) Jazz: A history of America’s Music by Ward and Burns. The companion piece to the documentary series. You can HEAR the music while reading.

8) The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Well, we need some good pulp fiction. Bitter, brutal, nasty, and raw.

9) The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. If you’re on a spiritual journey, it might be helpful to understand yourself.

10) On The Road by Jack Kerouac. A combination of lyricism, passion, brutal honesty, and unmitigated gall. And a reminder that the road doesn’t end.

That’s my list. I’d love to see yours.

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