The Desperate Art of Editing and Revision

I have just finished the first edit on my 1934 historical crime fiction. Recently, someone asked me what was involved in editing. Caught off guard, I provided a cursory response that seemed to satisfy him. Then I got to thinking: What IS involved?

Every book is different in terms of structure and, as such, might call for a different approach. I am definitely not the type of writer who has a cookie cutter approach to the craft. I am more of a pantser as a writer and, at least initially, the same in editing.

This first “round”, if you will, was largely a smoothing process, determining if there were speed bumps that slowed the pace down. I look for grammatical errors, poor description, in exact staging, dialogue that is too modern (keeping in mind this is my first historical piece), and logic errors. Mind you, this is a read-through a week after completion of the first draft.

There were cuts but mostly additions. I get through the first draft with the goal of completing the story. Consequently, there was an increase of approximately 2500 words. I found a scene in which I was referencing North and South and confusing myself after stating which location was in which direction. So, I stopped, drew a stick figure map on a scrap piece of paper, and cleared up the confusion.

For now, I realize I have not clarified the sense of time in the overall work despite making a few corrections. The next edit will pay attention to the time of year and the passage of time. Despite my lack of overt description, I do need more sensory details. This is not quite noir but rather hard-boiled. I will need to incorporate that kind of essence while staying true to the time period.

Even though I can rattle off a few books and movies that can give me a better point of reference (Bonnie and Clyde, High Sierra, anything by Jim Thompson), I am going to resist reading something else or watching something unless I feel I have no captured the mood and tone I am looking for.

I guess the guy who asked me the question originally might ask “How do you know when you’re done?” That’s the frustration. You either always think you’re done or never think you’re done. Both are debilitating because you want to move on to the next piece. At some point, you have to trust your instincts. Unless you get too desperate.

One size does NOT fit all

The thing that bothers me about weight loss ads is that they seem to target…everybody. Every race, gender, age. Everybody. They’re saying “Our product (or system or program) can help ALL of you.” But we know it’s not true.

Let’s extend that to writing, or any art form for that matter. I’ve heard keynote speakers and writing teachers, and I’ve read other blogs. Without disrespecting anyone, we have to be aware that what is being taught or suggested is one individual’s perception based largely upon their experience and success. As such, as they often state with financial investment programs, the results are not representative or guaranteed.

I admire other writers, especially those who have gained a measure of publishing success, who give back by identifying key points or pitfalls. I respect those who do not treat the craft of writing as some ancient text worthy of only the initiated. But writers have to be cautious of embracing the methodology of one as the singular and only protocol.

We are all aware of concepts of character development, realistic dialogue, three act structures, rising and falling actions, and the notorious “show, don’t tell.” It is acceptable to write in a different fashion. It is commendable to try a completely new approach. The only thing that counts is good writing. Of course, if the discussion is geared toward getting your work published, then a hard decision has to be made. Write like others, safe and unimaginative, and get published. Or write like yourself, in your voice, and know that their IS an audience out there for you. It just might be harder to find and take longer to do so.

I have just completed work on a historical crime fiction. It was a different genre for me but something that is mainstream enough for publication. I also have a wildly unpredictable metafiction and a novella that is within the same vein. I do not have great expectations for either. That does not mean I will not edit and revise them as fully as possible and seek to have them published. Some may ask, “Then why did you write them?” The answer is painfully simple: They were stories I wanted to tell. At the very least they are out of my brain and in a document.

As writers, we are, first and foremost, storytellers. That means when we have a story lurking in our inner core, it MUST be told. Consider publishing secondary; tell the story, in your voice and in your manner. You don’t need to fit in with everyone. That way you will stand out.

The Process (and how to achieve it)

I was recently helping a friend with a non-fiction project: a series of workplace anecdotes that I thought was going to be interesting, funny, and successful. In talking with him, I did something that I don’t often do: I outlined and detailed The Process. I tend to know, to feel, to sense what I need to do. To actual say it out loud is daunting and makes you question what you’re doing. This is what I told him:

-Write as many of these stories as possible. You’re going to wind up with crap that you’ll throw out.
-Look for an editor to review all the stories plus help you organize it into a cohesive unit for maximum reader enjoyment.
-Visualize a cover, a title, and perhaps illustrations or photos.
-Look for an agent or a small press. Make sure to consider those who work in your genre.
-Consider a marketing plan, whether it’s social media or book signings or former co-workers.

After indicating all this to him, I realized The Process is not linear. It’s not an ABC type of thing. Every time I see a writer friend on Facebook mention a recent publication or acceptance by an agent, mt first thought is “Great! Now get back to writing.” The Process is more like a Mobius strip. Writing, editing, selling, marketing may be to some a very specific system. There are writers who prefer the sense of completion and closure. To me, this seems to stifle the true Creative Urge.

I tend to sense when a work is as complete as I can achieve without obsessing over it for the remainder of my life. I have stories, countless stories, waiting patiently to be heard. I have a desire to sell my work. I am eager to network in order to meet other writers and artists and share commentary. All of this can not be accomplished by numbering these events 1-2-3.

So, perhaps I gave my friend an incomplete assessment of his forthcoming project. I should have advised him “You have to do this, this, and this…all at the same time.”

Being Virtuous

Family, friends, co-workers — anyone who is NOT a writer — just doesn’t get how the writing and publishing business works. If you send a query, people will ask “Did they read your stuff?” or “Are they going to publish it?” I am probably the only writer they know. The agents and editors and small presses get bushels of queries. The process is painfully slow.

Perhaps I should be more eager. At my age, there may not be as much time for real publishing success. Then again, I’m a better writer now than when I was younger and had more time. I’ve fallen into the comfortable mode of coming up with new stories and continually developing my craft. It’s a Zen thing (or maybe, in my case, a Dudeist thing).

There is a little bug creeping inside of me, scratching away at my more refined and in-control instincts. I’ve been around long enough to recognize that writing is not a money-making venture for either the writers or the publishers. Only a handful of writers are successful enough to make their living solely as writers. Even then, there is the constant networking and book signings and appearances at conferences for the purpose of selling their books.

I would like very much to be in that small circle. Not elitist, mind you, but just smiling that a long-standing dream had come true. But we know not to tempt fate and assume that a response to a query may lead to a request for pages; a review of pages might bring back an inquiry for the entire manuscript. Only twice have I gotten past that stage. It’s a gratifying feeling and I’d like to experience it again.

This system was not of my own creation. This is how it works. They say that patience is a virtue. I have no other recourse but to be virtuous.

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.


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