Let’s Talk

My blog was started as a way to connect with other writers and to talk about “the writing life” whatever that might mean to each of you. I have used it as well to promote my own works and I probably should be doing more to talk about my forthcoming book from The Wild Rose Press. But for this one moment I want to deviate because there is too much happening in the world based on negativity.

Race relations and politics have dominated the news. There seems to be nothing but finger-pointing, name-calling, and general hatred. There can be no unity without clear discourse. We can’t solve anything without talking about it as well as listening to the other side. Perhaps the biggest issue is that we don’t really know each other.

Take me for example. I’m a 54-year-old white male. I profess the Jewish religion without necessarily being an active practitioner. I’m from New England, having been born and raised in a suburb of Boston. I identify as a liberal, perhaps more so from a social standpoint, and somewhat conservative fiscally. I am a writer and value the arts in society.

If you can relate to this description, I am NOT talking to you.

I want to talk with those who are not, well, me! I grew up with people like me. I spent a great amount of time with people like me. Whereas we are all individuals and should not be lumped under any one demographic, I want to talk to someone else in order to better understand them and their situation. How they feel they fit, or don’t. What they fear the most in everyday life. What they want to accomplish. I don’t know if it will accomplish anything other than allowing me to have the perspective that I can not get in my daily life.

And maybe if other people reach out to a stranger, someone so unlike them, there will be more understanding and less fear and hatred. There’s nothing to lose. You can always go back to your self-contained world and never cross paths with someone different ever again. What is there to lose? If you’re willing to talk, I’m willing to listen.

So, let’s talk.

No, no, no. The work is just getting started.

Every writer knows this story:

You work on getting out a first draft. Six months. A year. Two. Or maybe the 30 days of NaNoWriMo. Whatever it takes.

Then, there is the hair-pulling teeth-gnashing headache-inducing editing/revision/rewriting process. You don’t want to delete an entire chapter but if it slows down the flow…You know. You’ve been there.

Now, it’s on to finding an agent or a publisher or an editor. You do the query letter, the pitch, the elevator pitch, the research, the writing conferences, the platform using every last bit of social networking you can think of.

And, voila!, you get your book sold to a small press, a contract is offered, and everything is peaches and cream.

HOLD ON! SLAM ON THE BRAKES!

You think you have gotten to the pinnacle, your longstanding dream has been realized and your mission in life is fulfilled. This is the time, you realize, when the work is just getting started. Everything up until then has been about your personal satisfaction, your accomplishments. But once you enter into a professional partnership with an agent or publisher, your dream is being shared and there is far more to do. You have a responsibility to ensure that THEIR dream is fulfilled as well. And that dream is successful publication and sales.

There is the editing process, the cover design process, the release, and the marketing, all while writing the next work to have something to follow up with as quickly as possible. If I were half my age, I do not think I would be prepared for this. However, I have been around long enough to recognize and appreciate the entire process, how it goes from personal to collaborative to business-oriented before returning to literary. Writing a book, by yourself, in your spare time, at a quiet location, is deeply personal and highly satisfactory. Keep in mind: you didn’t do it just for yourself.

I have had the good fortune of being signed by The Wild Rose Press who will be publishing my historical crime fiction “Ark City Confidential.” It has been an intense process, one I have not shied away from nor resented. In fact, all this has reinvigorated me and encouraged me more than the writing of the piece alone. It has given me the confidence to know that others are interested in your success as well and that it really IS a team effort.

So, yes, I am working and writing and editing and planning and continuing. That’s the main thing: to be able to continue to do the thing I love most.

The Process, or My Process

I just completed the fourth draft of my historical crime fiction, two days in advance of attending the OWFI Writer’s Conference. The last-minute finish has turned my attention to the processes I used on this particular work.

First, the story idea came from extended conversations with my wife’s uncle who lives in Arkansas City, KS. He spoke about a town often referred to as “Little Chicago” and underground tunnels. These tidbits were too interesting to pass up. (It was similar to the discussions I had with my brother-in-law regarding the judicial and penal systems that gave rise to my second novel, The 9 mm Solution.)

This was to be a historical crime fiction which basically caused me to strip away all forms of technology as well as my understanding of how things work today. Language, transportation, police procedural — all these things are not the same as they were in 1934 in rural Kansas. So, after creating an outline of characters and basic plot, I found websites for gangster and jazz-age slang, photos of vehicles and guns, and images of Arkansas City, KS in that time period.

The next thing to do was write. It was like blazing through a jungle with a machete and clearing a path for myself that lead, hopefully, to the other side. There were times when the story got muddled down but I pressed on until, about three-quarters of the way through, an epiphany came that showed me the ending.

The second draft was a grammar and language clean up, making sure tense stayed consistent, removing any modernisms of speech that had sneaked in, removing redundant expressions, confirming logic in terms of time frame and directions. It was like cleaning up the mess from a project.

But then came the third draft. This was like being a mortician and making the corpse presentable for viewing. (Strange comparison, I know, but the first thing that popped into my head.) I’m not excessive when it comes to description. This is, after all, hard-boiled crime fiction. Analogy works better than description in this style. It as important to give the readers the sense of time and place and to enhance the emotional content. This was the part of taking the bones of a good story and smoothing out the flesh.

It was then I stopped. Briefly. Four beta readers later resulted in the fourth draft. Enhancement of two small aspects based on feedback. It was nothing that altered the story and required any major plot revisions. This was like adding an appetizer and a dessert to the overall meal. With those minor elements added, I completed a final read through, strengthening a sentence here and there. In the end, from first to last draft, I went from 58K words to 65K. Of course, since I will be attending a conference, I also created a pitch. I am not as confident of that as I am of the work itself.

I am not as comfortable discussing my particular process for two reasons. First, I largely intuit it as I go for each project. There are different degrees of evaluation required based on the nature of the work. Additionally, I find too many people discussing the process from a purely academic standpoint. The semantics and the actualities are often two different things. Nevertheless, Ark City Confidential is ready to go. Let’s see how far we can take it.

The Commitment

April was National Poetry Month. I haven’t written all that much new poetry since my days in Boston over 20 years ago. A piece here and there as something inspired me. Concurrent with that, a Facebook friend sent out a challenge for a daily minimum of 10 minutes worth of writing. I came up with a poetic idea and accepted the challenge, feeling guilty that it wasn’t fiction and, in some cases, I wrote such a brief amount. Nevertheless, this was worthwhile.

Inspired by Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, my idea was called “A Month of Sundays in Stevensville.” It was to be impressionistic snippets of what Sunday meant to me, in the distant past as well as the present. I found that it became increasingly difficult as the month went on. But I succeeded and paid homage to National Poetry Month while motivating those within the Facebook challenge.

I used to participate in NaNoWriMo and found it to be entirely useful in motivating a daily writing goal. I know these sort of things are important, especially if you find yourself in a position where “real life” is encroaching too much on your creative life. I have also learned how to integrate both which is why I do not create daily writing goals.

This does not mean that I am not motivated or that I am not committed to my efforts, regardless of what others on social media may think. You can be committed to writing every day. There is Stephen King’s famous quote about that. However, like NaNoWriMo, simply putting words to paper (if you’re Old School) does not mean a novel is finished after X amount of words or pages.

When I do sit at my laptop, I am investing my all into the work at hand, becoming annoyed at an interruption, discarding thoughts of food or anything else from the outside world. I have stepped, like Alice, into my own personal Wonderland and that is where I must be.

All I have described is my personal preferences, how I work and prefer to work. The most important thing is to be committed to your writing in a fashion that suits you. The commitment is everything.

Do Something

There has been a lot of talk that 2016 has been a bad year with the passing of so many popular and talented people. Today’s death of Prince at the age of 57 reaffirms that. (Heck, I’m 54 this year so it’s not THAT old.) One consideration is that there will be no more from them. No more songs or books or movies from all these talented folks. The entirety of their output is complete.

The thing to remember is that they provided us with something lasting and memorable. They are gone but their works remain. Hearing a song from years ago puts you back to a moment in time that signifies an aspect of your own life. The many songs and stories and movies are signposts that mark our own passage.

But, if you are a writer or a musician or a budding film-maker, it is as important for you to set your own mark with your art. You may not win Grammys or Oscars or get on the New York Times Bestseller list. In the end, that is not what it is about. I consider the bravery and courage of David Bowie and Merle Haggard and Prince in doing what they wanted how they wanted. Even if “success” never came to them, they still “won” because they created a unique art that could only have been done by them.

The craft is the thing. Not as it is written in textbooks or presented by teachers. The pure essence of your own art comes through your experiences and your personal understanding. You need to get out and do the thing that compels you, regardless of finding an audience or marketing yourself. Unless, of course, that is all you are interested in.

Do something. Write that novel. Record that song. Make that film. Paint. Sculpt. Pour every ounce of yourself into an act of creation.

There is the famous quote by Kurt Vonnegut: The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

What could be more glorious than that? You may not wind up being Bowie or Haggard or Prince. But you will find yourself as long as you just do something. They did.

Was that TOO easy?

Ok, writers, you’re all familiar with THIS scenario:

Editing and revising for the eight, ninth, tenth, umpteenth time. Maybe a year or two. Removing subplots. Adding new characters. The story doesn’t resemble your original vision. The story doesn’t resemble…a story. You’re too much of a perfectionist. You’re growing tired of this piece but you HAVE to finish it. You moan, whine, and complain on social media about the stress you’re going through (which, in reality, is the stress you’re putting yourself through). Will you ever get done?

Right?

Well, that didn’t happen to me. Not quite, anyway.

I had started working on my historical crime fiction in 2014. Got a lot of basic outlining done as well as some significant research. I ran into a snag in the fall and then picked it up again in the spring of 2015. From there, I was moving right along like a freight train. Smooth and steady. Then I let it lay for about a month. The second draft was mostly a clean-up: grammar, punctuation, syntax, logic issues. The third draft was fleshing out, word choice, enhancement, description. I worked on a chapter at a time, edited, re-read the same chapter, and saved it before moving on. Forty-two chapters. Last night, I finished. After all this time, I still like this piece. I mean, I really like it.

The “problem” I’m encountering is that I think I’m done, at least from my end before handing it over to beta readers. (My wife will be the first.) But, in all the years I’ve been writing, I’ve never just stopped after three drafts. So, rather than sweating over numerous drafts and years, I’m concerned about the brevity of the process. Either this piece was really a part of me and just easy to get out, or it completely sucks and I like it too much to recognize it.

I have a feeling the answer is somewhere in between.

Be That Thing

There’s a difference between saying you are something and being that something. If you introduce yourself at a social function by saying “I’m a writer”, chances are you’ll get various responses:

“Have you written anything I’ve read?”
“Do you know Stephen King?”
“That must be fun.”

To the first, I have no idea what you read. To the second, no. To the third, you have no idea. The other comment that comes up is “What have you published?” It’s a valid question because, to most people, you are only a pretend writer if you have not been published. Even self-published. Working on your masterpiece for the past ten years will get you little sympathy or continued interest.

There is a fine line between putting something out that is crap that will forever ruin your name and waiting infinitely for the mot just like Flaubert and not publishing until your creative offspring is the epitome of brilliance and perfection. What is of most importance is that your work be out there for review and feedback. You will never improve your craft by lingering over a sentence or a chapter or realizing that your main character is too boring to be a protagonist after your thirteenth draft.

As writers, we are story-tellers. If you have told a compelling story, it is ready for others to enjoy. By virtue of the feedback you get, you will learn how to correct and modify and tighten your work so that it is more acceptable. This is not the time to contemplate your financial worth in the marketplace. This is the time to do what you’ve said all along that you would do: write. Stop hesitating. Be that thing.

That moment. That dreaded moment.

It was last night after dinner. I don’t remember the time because I wasn’t interested in capturing it for posterity. There was a lot going on all at once, a confluence of confusion.

—I was advised by e-mail that I needed to reformat a contest entry, only to scrupulously determine it was formatted correctly, which required me to politely advise the judge accordingly so as to prevent any pre-judging prejudice.

—Going through old e-mails, I found a chain from an editor I met at a conference last year who graciously (perhaps to pacify me) accepted the first twenty pages of a novel, never communicated back with me, and then when I sent a follow-up in an apologetic tone (yeah, I apologized for not following up earlier) still did not respond. That second one was four months ago.

—Another e-mail chain, this one with an agent. Similar situation except the response to the follow-up (same apologetic tone) was that the submission still had not been read. Again, four months ago.

—Realized I hadn’t gotten back to editing my historical crime fiction that I put aside shortly before the holidays, which are over. Still haven’t started editing a very special project that I believe in for a friend who has a great idea. Don’t want to let him down after the encouragement I gave.

—Continued research on new laptop. Found one. Indication only available for in-store pick up. Entered zip code. No stores in a 250 mile radius. (Similar research produced similar results.)

Then
out of the blue
in my head

WHY AM I DOING ALL THIS? MAYBE I SHOULD JUST GIVE UP BEING A WRITER.

As soon as the words formed in my head, as soon as I could hear them inside me, something sharp and acidic burned them away. But there it was, for one fleeting moment, the drudgery and formalities and logistics were overwhelming. Yet, it went away just as quickly because of the one thought that profoundly yelled at me:

WHAT ELSE ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH YOUR LIFE?

All the research, communication, queries, follow-ups, writing and revising, fitting all of this into a packed life, this is what it is about. I might never get another book published. Right now, since this is not my living (although I would very much like to make it be), I write because it is a compulsion. I write because I have to write because the stories inside me have to be told. I write to express myself in ways that I am unable to do in the “real world” and to hold a mirror up to others and, yes, even to myself.

So, judges and editors and agents, go ahead and do your thing. I’m okay with it. I’m going to continue submitting my work. I’m going to get back to my novel. I’m going to work on that project for my friend. I’m going to move on to a new, as-yet-unidentified project.

I am going to keep writing.

I am not going to stop.

Ever.

Year-End Reflections

This time last year, I was in a dull funk as far as writing was concerned. Earlier in the year, I had started work on a historical crime fiction. It was to be a challenge for me but one I deemed worthwhile. I had to deal with selling my late parents’ home long distance. The process started out rather simple then devolved into chaos and confusion coupled with unprofessional people who I needed to trust. By the time that was resolved, it was the madness of the holiday season.
But in May, I recharged, going down to Oklahoma for my fourth OWFI conference, hooking up with my friend, Nick Lyon, meeting the amazing Les Edgerton, and generally reminding myself that I was still a writer.
Well, I completed the first draft of that book and am on the second edit now. John Lennon said it best: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. I’m just fortunate to have been able to get back to those plans.

Les Edgerton

9 mm Centerpiece

I moved to Wichita, KS twenty years ago from Boston, MA. Yet, I find this community as filled with artistic talent. I’ve met writers and poets, sculptors and artists, musicians — the gamut of what truly invigorates me. My wife and I had season tickets for several years to the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, regular attended shows at Music Theater Wichita, saw Cirque du SoleilTHREE times, and attended some great concerts over the past year at the historic Orpheum Theater.
But something makes me feel I haven’t explored as much of the arts scene as I could have and definitely should have. John Donne indicated that no man is an island unto himself. No man or no one interested in developing their art. I know I need to get out there more and meet some more people in this community who are passionate about creating something special and are urged on by a compulsion that can not be defined.

Why is it so difficult to disagree any more? Notice how I didn’t ask why we can’t get along. Personally, I think that’s overrated. But we seem to have lost our ability to disagree, civilly and intellectually. There is a pervasive attitude of “If you’re not with me, you’re against me” as opposed to “I disagree, but let’s hear what you have to say.” You see it in politics and in every aspect of contemporary culture, especially Facebook.
I went on a rant recently regarding something rather innocuous. A lady (who was a Facebook friend because she was a friend of a friend) commented, as was her right to do so. When the commentary started to become personal, I took offense. If you know me and can “analyze” me, fine. If you don’t know me, it’s best to stay away from that line of response. And I said so.
A couple of weeks later, after the rant had fully passed from my mind, I recalled with childish humor the whole exchange. I looked up the lady. Sure enough she had unfriended me. I figured it was her loss because I feel I am interesting and a good conversationalist. The real point is that she could not accept my comment on her comment and left.
Disagreement is not dissension.

I find myself more intrigued by experimental fiction. Metafiction, transgressive fiction, fonts and colors, non-linear story-telling. I still maintain my passion for noir and hard-boiled. Yet, I use the alternative styles as a playful experiment and wind up discovering something new.
I am fortunate to be friends with Eckhard Gerdes on Facebook and I follow an Experimental Fiction group. These writers are light years ahead of me but my fascination is part of the learning process. At 53, I am content to know that I am not stuck in a groove and have miles to go before I sleep.

Going forward or reaching backward?

It seems like the answer should be simple. However, depending upon your perspective, it might not be as easy at it seems.

I am currently in the middle of editing my first-ever historical crime fiction. It takes place in Arkansas City, KS in 1933-34, an absolutely marvelous time for the Depression-era American gangster. However, I have always been one to have several irons in the fire. It’s akin to cooking a multi-course meal. I’ve been dabbling with something that might turn out to be a novella or a long short story. But I really want another novel as the next project.

This brings me to the question and the decision at hand. I can either wait for the ideal inspiration, seek out something new. Or, I can revisit an old piece, maybe something that was a former NaNoWriMo that just plain out sucked after completion or a piece I started with more noble intentions that had apparently faded.

That’s where the problem arises. It’s the week before Christmas and I have got some serious cooking and baking to do. I don’t ever really drop writing altogether during the holidays and I definitely want to have a new piece ready to work on once the time presents itself.

For fun, I’m going to make a brief list of ideas and see what kind of feedback I get. Are you game?

(1) “Professor Thug” – A different kind of college professor, one with perhaps a dubious background and dresses like a street thug but presents a high IQ. He gets involved in solving a murder of a former student with the help of his current teaching assistant and a naive senior.

(2) “The Stooges” – The highly ridiculous adventures of three would-be criminals who recognize their need to commit a lucrative crime in order to be solvent but have no idea what kind of caper to pull. This takes its inspiration from the great comic trio but with decidedly worse language.

(3) “12 Hours in Wichita” – An undeveloped idea for a neo-noir piece involving an enforcer coming to the city to settle a dispute between two factions of a criminal enterprise and all taking place within the confines of a fixed time period to heighten the suspense.

(4) Wait for inspiration and seek something out completely new, off the beaten path, and slightly experimental.

If you’ve got an opinion, I’d love to hear it.

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