Progress, at any speed

I suppose it is only natural to desire artistic success at a young age. I knew early on I wanted to be a writer. There were plenty of classes in school. I was raised in a home filled with books and art and culture. But I also recognized I just didn’t have it in college. Oh, there was desire and creativity. However, in terms of craft, I was not fully developed. Hard to tell in retrospect if it was lack of discipline or lack of understanding. Then again, it could have been lack of experience.

Then came the period from 1990-1995. The Boston Poetry Scene. Much diverse reading. Much experimentation with form and prosody. An even more diverse group of people to share and talk and commiserate. “Craft” with a capital C. It wasn’t anything you could hang a professional hat on. By the time I moved to Kansas, I was 33, still wanted to be a writer, but didn’t know where I was going.

Project Greenlight got me back into writing screenplays, something I studied in college in my 20’s. That effort went nowhere. Then I learned about NaNoWriMo and I figured it was the best way to jump-start my fiction writing. By that time I was 45.

There was self-teaching in blogs, self-publishing, social media. I was developing a platform (you know, whatever THAT is) and went to writer’s conferences and hung out with younger poets and could sense something was happening.


Ten years after the first NaNoWriMo, I had two books published (which have since been removed from print by the publisher), found a new publisher, got a book published, am currently working toward having that book turned into an audio book, working with an editor on the follow-up, and am writing the third in the series. I’m 55. I’m not a 20-something prodigy. I’m a married homeowner with a full-time job and a bunch of personal responsibilities. BUT…there is progress.

Is a dream any more desirable because it is achieved earlier in life? Is following your dream, at any pace, still as satisfying? I think of my perceptions in my 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, to now. When the movie “10” came out, I was 16 years old and fascinated by Bo Derek’s slow motion jog down a beach in a one-piece swimsuit. Thirty years later, I empathized with Dudley Moore’s issues with aging. The movie hadn’t changed; I had.

The only thing that has not changed is my passion for words and writing and the literary world. Progress, at any speed, is desirable and satisfying largely because it means you have not allowed your dreams to die.

Keep dreaming. Keep writing.


The Obligatory Post-Conference Blog Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

This kinda sucks

I realized it has been a long time since I’ve added anything to this tale of my journey as a writer. This is, I realize, largely due to the fact that the train has slowed somewhat dramatically. An extended and long distance effort to finalize my late mother’s estate has drained me to the point of mental and emotional exhaustion. A labor-intensive home renovation project has made me feel trapped in my own home. And, of course, the “joy” of the holidays is upon us.

I just wish this year would end.

To free myself of burdens, I’ve departed from a writer’s support group that I started and effectively ended my critique group. I’ve been able to sneak in two or three editing sessions on one of the four projects I was actively working on at the time that everything came to a head.

But, it occurred to me that I have other responsibilities as a married man, a homeowner, a full-time employee. I have accepted these responsibilities unlike the carefree days of a Bohemian poet in Boston twenty years ago. I can’t write every day as some mantras declare. As it turns out, sometimes you can’t write at all.

I have stated in the past that the most invigorating times are when I am writing or with other writers. This has not dissipated. However, I have not stopped BEING a writer merely because I am not actively writing. I read, every day at work. (Currently on Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman as a way to inform my own work of metafiction.) I peruse my non-fiction books at home. I play around on the internet seeking general information or go off on a research tangent simply as a way to jump-start my brain.

In essence, I realize that I am not fading away (although from a social networking sense, I HAVE been rather quiet). From a literary standpoint, I would call it more like hibernation. Yes, there is still the issue of my mother’s estate and finishing the remodel and getting through the holidays. But The Writer is still alive.

Nevertheless, this still kinda sucks.

I don’t know what it is, but it’s new.

We have so many expressions to describe changes in our lives. A new beginning. Turning over a new leaf. A fresh start. And too often we use the arbitrary time period of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day to make declarations, those ever-present resolutions. I am not entirely certain that I have begun anew. Rather, transitioned or morphed, continuously progressed as both a person and a writer and artist. Let’s make some declarations to identify the current mind-set.

Initially, this blog was to allow me to discuss my two passions: writing and cooking. I have shared some interesting pictures and recipes but I have already encountered so many other blogs who are far more passionate regarding their culinary pursuits. They spend far more time photographing and offering recipes that I will have to leave you with my favorite expression — It’s All About The Food! — and leave it at that. At heart, I am a writer and an artist. Whereas I always want to be known as a person who makes a tasty dish, I’d rather ultimately be known for my art. That being said, this blog will focus on The Writing Life and my experiences within that realm.

I am no longer actively involved with any writing groups. For six years I was a member of one, going so far as to be president for 10 months. Unfortunately, the rigors of the position, the lack of participation from most of the other board members, and the sense that it was more of a social and networking group dedicated solely to getting published, left a bitter taste in my mouth. As the new year begins, I will not renew my membership. I have left their Facebook page as it no longer offers me anything of benefit. There was another local group that I thought of joining. Unfortunately, at their recent conference, there was a pathetic plea to acquire newer and younger members. Parallel to that was the almost obliviousness that these older folks had no clue as to what the newer and younger members want or need.

I prefer to spend my time in smaller groups, at poetry readings where people of all ages and all types meet and, working through their nerves, read their work hoping for validation, commentary, suggestion, and encouragement. These people focus on craft, the art of writing, far more than the immediacy of publication and the corresponding marketing that is necessary. I have, for the past six months, been involved in a critique group. This comes nearly twenty years after the passion of being surrounded by poets in Boston in the mid 90’s. Friends who would read your work over and over as you would for them. Scintillating conversations that led to real development. Now, older and hopefully wiser, I recognize the benefits of my small group.

Writing conferences still hold value for me. I will be attending the same one for the third year in a row this year, going back with product to sell and discuss, and reconnecting with some very interesting writers who have become friends. This is the best of all worlds.

There is no way for me to denigrate NaNoWriMo. My first attempt was in 2007. Five years later, that effort (after much revision) became “Swan Song”. The weekend after Thanksgiving, during a promo through BookBub, it rose to #2 on Amazon’s ranking of free e-books.

By the same token, I undertook the 30 day challenge at a time when I needed to jump-start my writing. I continued for five more years, “winning” each time. However, the last three efforts lacked any viable story elements to continue construction/reconstruction/editing. It proved I could do it. I started thinking of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” continually writing “All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy’ and calculated that composing that sentence 5000 times would make me a NaNoWriMo winner. I no longer need to jump-start my writing and I no longer wish to write at such a pace. The craft of writing dictates a more meticulous approach, one that is both calculating and passionate, one that savours the sound and feel of the words more than their weight.

So, I did not participate in 2013 and I do not intend to participate for the foreseeable future. I’m working on a different timetable and the people I associate with are as passionate about the craft and art of writing as I am.

I am going to explore more of the world of social networking as much as I can within the time constraints of being a married homeowner who is a full-time employee. I’ve added Instagram and Tumblr to my repertoire and will attempt to tweet more often. My hope is to find more like-minded people: artists of any sort (writers, poets, musicians, photographers, etc.) who have a definite passion for their craft and can appreciate the inter-connectivity between these media as well as mathematics and science. I know we can create something greater by piecing together ALL that is around us.

My personal goals are shared between myself and my loved ones. This venue is for writers and artists. Let’s talk. Let’s share ideas. I welcome all who currently follow to reply and let us all know where you are at with your work; what you want to achieve; how we can be a resource for your efforts. Knowing how much joy I get from reading and critiquing others’ works and how it makes me better has made me enjoy being a ‘teacher’ and mentor as much as a motivator.

So, is this a new leaf, a fresh start? No, not really. It’s just me, H.B. Berlow, Writer and Artist, moving forward. And it will be all new.

They don’t tell you about dinner.

It is only two days away from the Kansas Writer’s Association’s Scene Conference. It’s time to think about what it means to be a writer.

I’ve known, ever since first grade when the teacher had us put those ten vocabulary words into ten sentences, that words were a source of fascination. This notwithstanding the extensive library my parents maintained. And, in grade school, high school, college (where my second major behind film-making was creative writing). Training to be a writer.

Going from a “portable” Smith Corona typewriter to a Brother Word Processor. Identifying the hardware and being able to use it. Falling behind the computer generation and then feverishly catching up. Reading and expanding my reading list. Immersion in the Boston Poetry Scene in the early 90’s. Classic Greek and Roman poets and a few Dadaists and Surrealists thrown in for good measure.

Trying to get back to screenwriting while making a home in Kansas. Turning my attention back to the start, back to fiction. Crime fiction. And then discovering Transgressive fiction. Allowing myself to dare to experiment and be different. Or be myself, as the case may be.

Membership in the KWA. Subscription to Writer’s Digest. Teaching myself all the computer skills necessary, still being behind the curve, but catching up slowly. Learning about blogging and websites and creating a platform. My wife got me Ariel Gore’s book “How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead” and other such books. They’re great. Great insight, fantastic suggestions, good feedback into becoming a better writer and getting published.

And then there is that shake of the head. I’m spitting distance from turning fifty, a married homeowner with a full-time job, and just as many personal responsibilities as artistic desires. I’m not young enough to drop everything and go on an extended book signing/reading tour of colleges in a five state area. I’m not old enough and retired to attend writing conferences on either coast and expand my social and professional networking circle.

I’ve got to go grocery shopping and make dinner and take out the trash and pay bills and show up to work often enough where they do not doubt my sincerity of working there and allow me to keep making a living so I can pay my bills.

The bottom line is that I take everything I read and hear and discuss about writing and becoming a published writer and having a career as a writer with a grain of salt. I’ve got to fit everything that is MY life into an intricate jigsaw puzzle, sometimes daily or weekly or monthly or yearly. Whatever happens to be the priority of the moment.

I squeeze in some reading during two fifteen minute breaks and a half hour lunch. I post a blog when the urge strikes. I check up on the social networking as much as my limited resources allow. And I write when there is some new story to tell or some old story to revise.

And my wife, who is also my editor and biggest supporter, knows that the door open is an invitation and the door closed is a sign of immersion. I try to remind myself of the definition of ‘discipline’ every time I am at my desk in my office and when the laptop is turned on.

I keep reading the sage wisdom of published writers and what worked for them, hoping to come across someone EXACTLY like me. Because anyone else is either older or younger or a different gender or in a different profession or a different state. I haven’t found that person, as you may have guessed. Thankfully, at least for my wife’s sake, there is no one exactly like me. Therefore I am charting my own path.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go clean up the dishes from tonight’s dinner.

2011 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,800 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 47 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

“Low Life” – Ryan David Jahn

I had never read an existential thriller until I finished the above mentioned book. Unlike standard thrillers where there is a relative amount of action and suspense, Jahn posits a scenario and then runs his main character through a set of daunting paces.

It does start rather slowly, detailing the boring life of a boring man. Simon Johnson lives in seeming decrepitude and has a life unworthy of a story. At same point, a man breaks into his run-down apartment and attempts to kill him. In defending himself, he kills the intruder and discovers a remarkable resemblance to the deceased. He sets about to discover who the man is and why he wanted to kill him.

There is a need to suspend disbelief initially. The character of Simon is blase at best and it is hard initially to accept that he would undertake this personal and psychological journey into a great unknown. But as the intensity builds and the answers do not seem readily apparent, we do desire to see Simon’s effort through to the end.

Jahn could have bailed out early on this premise and cut it short with a pat answer akin to the end of a CSI-type hour-long drama on television. Instead he digs and explores deeply. There are twists and turns and repositioning of the time continuum which becomes understood at the conclusion. The book is challenging in that it does not rely solely on the tools of a standard thriller but delves into what makes a person themselves or want to be someone else.

Jahn has a great blog, Guns and Verbs, which reveals some of his whimsical character as well as his considerations on the writing life. His debut novel, Acts of Violence has already been translated into several languages and he shows great promise for a long and successful career.

Words: Meaning and Intention

While driving to work the other morning, I saw a hand-made sign on the corner of the intersection.


Being a writer, my brain started thinking, started processing a response to a meaningless sign that had no personal bearing on me. It struck me that I would NOT want to even see that house. Not that I’m in the market. But even if I were, that sign did not properly attract me. It had the opposite effect of dissuading me. The house was defined. It was CHEAP. Whatever condition it might have been in, I was never going to learn because it had been defined by the seller as being CHEAP.

Now, I am going a bit on with this but it brought to bear the power of words and word choice. In acting (or in call center customer service) tone and inflection are often more significant than word choice when it comes to presentation. As words, we have only the word and its direct (and/or indirect) placement with other words, in concert to form a sentence, sentences to form paragraphs, etc. Word choice is not just a phrase to be bandied about in writing guides.

There are countless examples where a word used in a generic sense adds nothing to the mood or tone or setting, but an alternate word with a sense of character evokes more for the reader and carries them forth to the next sequence of words.

I was called out recently by a successfully published author in this blog due to word choice. Perhaps I was more lax than I am in my own writing because I feel that this venue is more conversational and evocative of commentary more than criticism. Nevertheless, as a writer I should not allow the venue to alter what it is that I do (and should do) with words.

Before i got to work that morning, I realized that the seller could have used the exact same four words but in a different sequence (and with an added bit of punctuation) to infer a different meaning.


I would have assumed that, in this economy where job loss has been prevalent, the seller was in desperate need of capital and had to get out from under a financial burden. Instead, I will only have to consider a dirty, ugly, rundown, CHEAP house.

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