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.

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.

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