Be different. Better yet, be yourself.

Dr. Paul Nagel was my screenwriting professor at the University of Miami back in the early 1980’s. He said something (which I have since heard paraphrased numerous times) that has stuck with me since: Don’t write like everyone else in Hollywood. They’ve already got everyone else in Hollywood. The bottom line is that nobody was writing like H.B. Berlow. Unfortunately, at that young age, even I wasn’t writing like H.B. Berlow.

A divorce and a poetry anthology got me moving emotionally and intellectually. A five years span in Boston immersed me into a scene populated by the widest range of writing styles. It was there I became a writer. That was the poetical me. The fiction me took a while longer. Whereas I was fascinated by Hammett and Chandler and Ellroy and Jim Thompson, I didn’t live in 1930’s or 1950’s Los Angeles or 1950’s Midwest. I was living in Wichita, KS in the 1990’s and into the next century.

You learn, you read, you grow, and, hopefully, you find yourself. Therein lies the rub, as the Bard would say. The Writing You that you find may not be the one that agents and editors and publishers want. And if immortality is what you’re looking for (or at the very least, publication) then you have a serious choice. You can either violate the years of work and effort and inner retrospection to “write what sells” or you can stay on your path.

I met a young lady several years ago and asked her what she wrote. She informed me that Steampunk was her genre. Not fully aware of its scope, she provided me with an explanation that fascinated me. I asked how she got into it and she replied that was what was currently selling.

I nodded my head and walked away.

Having spent so many years working through prosody and the craft of fiction, taking the steps to read works in my preferred genres of noir, hard-boiled, dark fiction, and Transgressive fiction, I found it hard to believe that someone would simply choose a genre for the financial gain with perhaps no abiding or deep-rooted connection to it.

When it comes to contests, I also try not to get too uptight that a work does not receive recognition. The judges of that particular year may not have appreciated the nature of my work. I guarantee resubmitting to the same contest the following year (assuming the judges change) would have a different result. There is no reason for me to review the winning entries and try to write something “just like that.”

I am at a point in my life that could be a literary crossroads, if I allow it to be. The desire for publishing success is great. I won’t deny that. Anyone who says they are writing for the pure aesthetics is delusional. By the same token, at the age of 53, I am only too comfortable in my literary skin to simply change with the prevailing winds. There IS a market for me and my work. There IS an audience.

It has taken 53 years to become H.B. Berlow and right now the writing world does not have H.B. Berlow. I’m staying the course.

How dark is too dark?

So, maybe you’re a teenager or twenty-something, goth or just likes to wear black, thinks deep thoughts about death and realizes your life is going nowhere even though it’s just begun.

You might be a thirty to forty-year old, well established, married, homeowner, good to decent job with benefits, flashing back to your youth and realizing you didn’t get as wild as you wanted to before all this normalcy set in.

You could be fifty plus, grandparent or simply elder statesman, looked upon with a kind of reverence only because the young people you encounter don’t usually deal directly with someone your age and they somehow seem appealing to you.

Everyone has dark thoughts but manages to suppress it. Those who don’t are arrested. In truth, they are a small minority. Then, there is the writer of dark or transgressive fiction. That would be me. Some of the stuff I think of and consider initially make me go “Wow! I don’t think I should write THAT!” Immediately after that, there is an article on Yahoo! or on t.v., something that really happened, somewhere in the world, the U.S., your own state, your own neighborhood. And you say “Wow! What I’ve just thought of is nothing compared to the real world.”

I’ve read some dark fiction that seems to be trying to shock, going to an extreme to see if it can fit in with a reader’s sensibilities long enough to whack them over the head. That kind of writing reminds me of cheap B horror movies anywhere from the late 50’s to the mid 70’s. They are no better off than cheap porn, offering no substance and riding the coattails of shock only.

What I find the most tantalizing and scary are tales of the real world, real people, who react against the grain of the normalcy they project. Underneath, the maggots are already eating away at their soul and they won’t stop until everyone around them feels their suffering.

Manson is boring. He looks like a psycho and acts like one. Dahmer is fascinating. The boy-next-door with the angelic face and the dark desires. Rader is interesting because the president of a church is not supposed to have desires to Bind, Torture, and Kill. Too many people lump all these killers into one dark bunch, as though the act itself is what creates the darkness.

To me, it is the attempt at hiding it and covering it up that is darker. It is not the cheap porn of Helter Skelter. It is the darkness within that blinds our eyes when it is eventually revealed.

The lingering after effects

The 2015 OWFI Conference officially ended Saturday May 2. A full three days later, my Facebook feed is still blowing up with comments and photos and shared feelings of fun and rejuvenation. This is a good thing.

However, it is more important to take that kinetic energy and focus it into the kind of controlled discipline that it takes to be a successful writer. Not just for a few days or weeks after a great conference, but ongoing, continuous, like a snowball rolling down a mountain, gathering momentum and size and speed.

Many years ago, it would be far too easy for me to wind down, so to speak, and fall back into the lurching movement of contemporary life with all the tedium and routine that it is known for. As I get older, I realize quite painfully that I do not have as much time to achieve what has always been my dream. Opportunities will be fewer and further apart. This is the time. Now.

Oh, I’ll continue to be responsible, go to work on time, every day, do the job possible. I’ll continue planning a menu, going shopping, making dinner, doing the dishes. The necessary tasks of a homeowner will be accomplished. But the eye will be clear and focused; the hand will sweep away the wasted time; and the heart will proceed forward.

These are not lingering after effects. This is the fuel for the future.

Notes on a Writer’s Conference – OWFI 2015

This was my fourth year attending and was, for me, the best ever. One of the primary reasons was due to the fact that there were more faculty and speakers who dealt with crime/thriller/transgressive/dark fiction genres, thereby making it more relevant for me.

Tops on the hit parade was Les Edgerton, the keynote speaker. Look up his bio on Wikipedia and that only scratches the surface. Les doesn’t have a filter, hates political correctness, has a wise-ass sense of humor and an absolute passion for the craft of writing. That kicks it into high gear beyond anything else. He graced our table at the Saturday night banquet. Trust me; that was an honor.

Richard Thomas is the editor in chief of Dark House Press and has proven that transgressive and dark fiction still has a place in publishing. He was self-effacing, personable, and accessible. I pitched my fully realized novel “Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing” (which I have commented on in this venue before). We’ll see where that goes (he said with painfully crossed fingers).

Andrew E. Kaufman doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would write “Twisted” or other psychological thrillers. But, again, the passion for the craft drives him and has brought him an incredible amount of success.

I am fully convinced that all you need to fully understand the intricate details of the police procedural is to consult with Lee Lofland. Everything about the sessions with this former police detective was filled with the most significant information to bring your story alive. Again, another interesting speaker with a unique sense of humor.

You have to consider all the sidebar events, gatherings, buzz sessions, pitch sessions, drinks at the bar, after-banquet jam sessions and impromptu conversations. I am convinced that the Embassy Suites in Oklahoma City is never as alive as it is when OWFI invades.

I’ve mentioned people. But this conference also instills hope and motivation. It provides not only the tools but the confidence to proceed in this journey of creativity. When Sunday rolled around and people were leaving with their suitcases, I knew it was all over. Whereas I would have preferred to stay and live in that hotel until next year, I knew that “real life” was beckoning. Part of that “real life” includes writing.

It wasn’t a dream. And the adventure continues.

You mean, I get to talk about writing?

I have a neighbor that I met last Christmas. Jill D. Miller is the force behind Creative Solutions, a consulting firm that helps entrepreneurs achieve their dreams. She also teaches Entrepreneurship classes at Wichita State University.

She knows Kylie Brown who is the founder of Creative Rush which is a forum for creative individuals to collaborate, connect, and inspire one another. Programs include the 1st TUE TALKS and Down to the Wire – a 24 HR Film Race.

Then there is the Wichita Art and Book Fair being held this year at the Wichita Art Museum. And one of the events is the Creative Rush Panel Discussion being held on Sunday, May 10, 2015 from 2:30 PM to 4:00 PM. And it’s free.

And I’m going to be on the panel, sitting on the famous orange couch and talking about writing, the process of writing, the successes and failures, the challenges and obstacles. Let’s face it, next to actually writing, my favorite thing is talking about writing. It’s a secretive and highly personal world that you let people into when you discuss the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ and it gives people insight into just how madcap and frustrating and mentally taxing it can be, rather than allow them to think that all writers do is sit on their butts and…write.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The bottom line is that I am grateful to Jill and Kylie for the opportunity. It’ll be fascinating to see who attends and what questions they might have. Sometimes it takes an inquiry out of the blue to make you think of things that might slip your mind.

Take advantage of the entire Wichita Art and Book Fair and please stop by the Creative Rush Panel Discussion. I look forward to seeing you there.

Why going to the OWFI Conference is important

I have basically been on a hiatus from all things writing for nearly six months. Dealing with the legalities of handling my mother’s estate long-distance then segued into the excitement/stress of the holiday season. I’ve done a little editing on one work-in-progress but nothing as intensive as the several years prior. However, as I stated in an earlier post, I’m dusting off the old writer and bringing him back up to speed.

The one thing that will get the batteries recharged will be going to the OWFI Conference. This will be my fourth straight year, which pales in comparison to many who were involved for a far longer time. However, this will be important to me more than anything else except for writing itself. Let me tell you why.

I was involved in two critique groups. They were significant and helpful. The participants all respected each other and were prepared on the days we met. The sharing was equal. Despite convincing myself that I could be involved with writers outside my own genre, I felt on many occasions that my approach was not being understood. One argument is that a critique group focuses on craft regardless of genre. While this may be true to some extent, I didn’t feel like I was getting the boost that I needed. Also, critique groups are limited in their scope.

There was a writer’s support group that I started based on discussions with some friends at last year’s OWFI. It sounded like a good idea. Not a critique group where we shared actual work but a sounding board for ideas of both a craft and marketing nature. Unfortunately, it fell upon me to organize meetings with people of differing lifestyles and timetables. Whereas I insisted that there was no true leader, no one else stepped up. The notion of “support” fell apart.

I was associated with a writer’s group for a period of time. Too much politics, back-stabbing, attention to publishing over craft, and often times wound up steering into pure social hour. Plus, if you are on the board of such groups, it is necessary to play diplomat and assuage everyone’s concerns, especially if they are paying members.

Which brings us to OWFI. It is a conglomeration of both writer’s groups from Oklahoma and surrounding states but also allows for members-at-large who are not affiliated with any designated group. Therefore, the conference brings together a wide array of genres and publishing levels. They do not have ‘speakers’ but rather ‘faculty’ making this conference educational in nature. With the exception of niche genres and fringe writing styles, they have offerings for writers of all styles. It is held in an Embassy Suites hotel making it entirely convenient.

I am not seeking a narrow and limited assessment of my work. I do not need the politics of a regional organization. I prefer the camaraderie, information, and morale-boosting of the OWFI conference. If you are in the area, you should attend. If not, find something like it in your own area. Three days will fellow writers who are serious about their work lasts me the entire year.


When Metafiction crosses over into the “real world”

One of my current works-in-progress is a Metafiction. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it is a literary device that draws attention to a work of fiction as an artifact, causing the relationship between reality and fiction. Two of the most well-known examples are The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne and The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth.

My work is called The Novel Titled ‘This is Not a Novel’,and it purports to be the fictional biography of a writer named H.B. Berlow by, strangely enough, a writer named H.B. Berlow. It then segues and criss-crosses with two other fictional biographies which may or may not be fictional. The whole purpose is to ask the question of how important it is to know of the history of a writer in order to appreciate his work. The mysterious life of writer B. Traven. who wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, is a testament to this theme. He once said “The creative person should have no other biography than his works.”

Yet, even the notion of biography, autobiography, or memoir questions whether the information presented is factual and if it can be accurate. The nature of memory is always called into question. Police indicate that eyewitness testimony is less reliable than concrete facts. How can we possibly know the truth of anything if memory is not reliable enough?

The recent case of Brian Williams, a respected journalist and a man of integrity, causes us to reevaluate how events are created in the mind and then passed forward. Either Mr. Williams is a low-down and nefarious individual who, like most people on television, has an absolute need to be front and center in the spotlight…or, his memory is as suspect as anyone else on the planet.

I feel validated by the unfortunate series of events, knowing that my work-in-progress has a measure of basis in the real world. The irony is that my work of fiction that clouds the nature of reality should not so closely mirror that reality. Or should it?

The minefield of Historical Crime Fiction

About a year ago, I started work on a historical crime fiction set in Arkansas City, KS in 1934. It is far different in tone and setting than my previous works. Swan Song is a neo-noir hardboiled tale while The 9 mm Solution is more of a procedural. Not all crime fiction is alike.

However, I am already discovering the challenges of working in a time period dramatically outside my own. Here are a couple of examples:

The bad guy is making every effort to escape when suddenly his car breaks down. He pulls out his cell phone…no, wait. He doesn’t.

The policeman thinks he has seen the bad guy before but he can’t place him. Using the police department’s facial recognition software on the computers…ah, no. That’s not quite right either.

What we currently take for granted in our daily lives must be erased, in essence, in order to consider exactly what would have been done over 80 years ago. It’s not just the technology, or lack thereof. The minutiae that make up our days has to be re-examined. There is no Walmart, perhaps not even a grocery store per se. Telephone service is limited; long-distance calling requires a different kind of connection. Communication is not as pervasive. There is no television and radio is the most “real-time” information system available. Perhaps there is the picture show or people getting together to play bridge or canasta. Going to the bathroom, taking a shower, doing the dishes — they are all different from what we are used to.

Naturally, in this piece, I don’t need to show my protagonist brushing his teeth or doing laundry. However, it is necessary to know how these things were done. It may be discussed in dialogue or referenced. I know there are readers who do nothing but pick apart every detail and nuance looking for an error, and I am certain I will make some. So, the task in working my way through this minefield is to show just detail to provide the feeling of the period without going overboard so that it detracts and allows the picky individuals to declaim the work.

Wish me luck.

Gloria Berlow (1924-2014), an overdue tribute

She was born Charlotte Gloria Entin on April 29, 1924, the youngest child of Joseph and Elizabeth Entin. She did not like the name Charlotte. But, let’s hold off on that until later. She had an older brother, Moe, and an older sister, Pearl.

Moe would become a respected doctor and Pearl would marry a pharmacist. If you measure success in Life by those standards, I can tell you right now, she was not a successful lady. However, she had other values of a higher nature.

She survived scarlet fever as an infant. This was supposed to cause her heart to be weaker. I never saw any evidence of that. In fact, she had a big heart.

When World War II broke out, she enlisted into the Navy and was stationed in San Francisco.


It was well known that Bostonians were famous the world over for jaywalking. The story goes that, one evening when out with some friends, she was, well, acting like a Bostonian. An MP’s whistle blew and he called out “Hey, Boston. Get back on the sidewalk.” She was thoroughly embarrassed.

After the war, her friend Shirley Bailey fixed her up on a blind date with a friend of her husband Benny. George Berlow never let the effects of childhood polio get in the way of being charming, adventurous, and loving. They eloped in September of 1947, taking the train from Boston to New York City, stopping in Hartford to get married by a Justice of the Peace. Cute, huh? The real fascinating part of this was that they continued to live in their respective homes until they could break the news to her mother, a woman engrained in the Old Country.

On December 31, 1947, they were married in a religious ceremony.


Life was not always easy. George was not a doctor or pharmacist but he did do everything to provide for his growing family. Three sisters preceded me. Even at the age of 38, Gloria was a loving and doting mother, from the cute new baby boy…

With Baby

to the high school graduate.


All the while, George and Gloria enjoyed their lives together, going on vacations with their children, supplementing their income selling antiques, and creating an environment of art and culture and love. And books in every room of the house. (Perhaps I was destined to be a writer.)


Okay, the styles weren’t always ideal but they made the most of them.

They moved to Florida in 1986, away from the bitter cold of New England winters. They were able to celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary before George passed away in October of 2012.

Ma and Dad

She didn’t cry. She said he had been suffering for years and he was now at peace. She amazed us all with a strength that, honestly, we never knew she had. It was at this time that she requested to be called Charlotte. She was coming into her own.

She died one day after her 90th birthday. She had a stubbornness about her that was actually endearing. I am quite certain it was a trait I inherited. My greatest joy was being able to make her laugh until she was in tears. Laughter was another trait I inherited from her. It does the soul good.

I miss her greatly. But knowing my parents are together, free from pain, holding hands, and kissing like silly teenagers, is a warm and comforting thought.

I’m back! (Kinda. Sorta. Almost.)

When my mother passed away last year, it was one day before the OWFI Conference. Certainly, it was difficult, but there was no other option but to go and it is what my mother would have wanted. She and my late father always supported and promoted my writing. Creativity has long been a part of my family.

Over the course of the next several months, there were the legalities to go through involving the sale of her house. This was to be a long distance venture: the house was in Florida and I’m in Kansas. I chose who I thought was a reputable title company and went through an excruciating process based on my inability to make calls from work and time zone differences. There is far more to this part of the story but the details are not the issue. The bottom line is an unnecessary amount of stress was placed upon me by people who were far less than professional.

Then came the holidays.

In the meantime, I had to take a hiatus from my critique group. What started as temporary seems permanent. I had to recuse myself from attending meetings of the writer’s support group which I started. I pulled back and into a shell. The last quarter of the year I didn’t do a single bit of writing. I did some editing on a work in progress once or twice. In essence, I disappeared as a writer and, in so doing, lost my identity.

Well, the holidays have passed, my New England Patriots have won the Super Bowl, and I’m ready to start up again. I have to; there is no other choice. The alternative is to wind up like Amos Hart from “Chicago” (i.e. Mr. Cellophane). Life is too short to be occupied solely with the mundane and trivial. As writers, we create and bring to life the widest possibilities that exist around us. It is a feeling which I need to have again.

I will be doing a final draft on my Transgressive fiction piece, expanding it and making it even wilder than it is. I will be working on a second draft of the Meta-fiction, trying to expound on the notion of the Writer vs. the Writing. I will be picking up where I left off on my historical crime fiction.

Now, notice how I said “will be.” There are still a few plates that need to be cleared from the table, a better organization of my time, and a renewed dedication. So, I’m back, just not all the way yet.

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