What’s normal?

A while back, I came up for a unique idea for a novel. It was to be the fictional biography of an author (not me) named H.B. Berlow, being written by me, H.B. Berlow. The whole thing was designed to explore the nature of identity and how important it is to know more about the author than just reading the book.

Shortly thereafter, I read an article in Writer’s Digest that referenced ‘metafiction’ and upon further review, I discovered that was the concept behind what I had thought about writing. Then, I came across Eckhard Gerdes on Facebook, discovered the Journal of Experimental Fiction, and realized that my mind was naturally bringing me on a different course.

Background check: I was a young writer who wrote short stories. Then I was a college student studying film-making and screenwriting. That was followed by a thirty-something semi-bohemian poet who morphed into a writer of crime fiction. It’s what writers do: grow, change, progress, learn, develop craft, take from their life experience. Perhaps I had thought that writing experimental fiction was something for someone considerably younger. Then it occurred to me that I had ALREADY considered something different for me, discovered it WAS a genre, and determined my curiosity was still piqued.

I twice entered the Kenneth Patchen Award competition through JEF simply as a way to validate my efforts. While not a winner, I eventually came across a call for submissions to an anthology that Mr. Gerdes was editing. My entry was accepted. Offbeat/Quirky is an enticing collection of stories of a far-ranging nature. It is an honor to be included.

Since the acceptance (which was some time back), I’ve gone on to publish a historical crime fiction (Ark City Confidential) and am working on the next entries in the series. But something compels me to return to experimental fiction. The unique opportunities it presents allows me to break out from rigid structures and tell stories in a way that might hit directly to a reader’s core or open up their minds to another way of viewing the world around them.

The notion that literary fiction (or even genre fiction for that matter) is more “normal” is absurd. Anyone viewing the wide gamut of movies, television shows, music, even theater, can see that the “standards” have been broadened as artists seek to reach out to more and more people. For me, experimental fiction is like another cuisine to cook, keeping my culinary interests fresh, serving a meal that is not like yesterday’s or the day before.

As I challenge myself, I also challenge readers to step outside of their so-called comfort zone. Find something that is intriguing that may not be your standard. Don’t worry: it’s perfectly normal.

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Something like a guitarist

I came across an article on Facebook recently about a listing of the all-time great guitarists. These are subjective discussion starters (or perhaps argument starters depending on your level of passion). Naturally, I read the article, then Googled other lists. The usual suspects appeared in the top 10 most of the time: Hendrix, Page, Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and on and on.

As I read through these lists it was quite natural for small sections of music to come to mind with each article about the individual. Being 55, having grown up in the late 60’s and 70’s, many of these figures were part of my formative musical education. Not being a musician myself, I learned later on about a guitarist’s tone based on the guitar used, the type and weight of the strings and how he pulled or bent them. Other factors, such as amps and feedback and wah-wah bars, also contributed to that guitarist’s unique sound.

It occurred to me in a very delightful fashion that writers have a tone as well. It’s the way we use words, phrases, slang. It’s evident in the outlook on life that our characters express. Even the resolutions to our stories set an indelible tone.

I can easily ascertain a difference between Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich, Thompson, and Ellroy. It would be cool to provide an analogy of a guitarist to each writer but that would belabor the point.

Hard boiled. Noir. Dark. Sure, maybe they all share those components. But the reason I read them and like them is for their differences, the subtle nuances that declare each man to be an individual and not part of a collective genre. Something like a guitarist. Once you get past the external and dig deeper, you can recognize the tone that each writer sets and understand how they are captivating and bring you in to their world. I choose not to make lists or prioritize preferences. “I like X over Y” seems to diminish Y. “I like X because…” and then “I like Y because…” says you understand how a writer works his magic on you.

Blues rock vs. heavy metal. Hard-boiled vs. police procedural. Doesn’t matter. Like the music, give me good quality writing with an individualistic tone and you got me from cover to cover.

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…

It’s not my intention to have you visualize Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde from “Reservoir Dogs.” I’m simply using a song to identify a pleasant crossroad for a writer.

I’m currently in the process of submitting the second book in the Ark City Confidential chronicles. (No news yet, but you’ll be the first to know.)

Obviously, there is also continued marketing and exposure for the first book while waiting for the “draft” of the audio book to review once it is prepared. (That means listening to MY book read by someone else. Which is cool and scary at the same time.)

If I get a contract for the second book, there will be a conscientious editing process. Of course, I have been meticulously outlining and researching the third book in the series. (I’ve learned that when you write historical crime fiction, there is more than just character development and plotting.)

I don’t know if the use of ‘crossroad’ earlier was correct. It feels more like being on a single path in which there are marionette-like strings attached to me pulling me backward and forward and holding me in place all at the same time. I’ve never been in this position before, working on the past, present, and future simultaneously.

Not exactly sure if I’m a clown or a joker. Right now, just a writer enjoying the process.

Networking, or Meeting New Friends

I was involved in a chat session last night through my publisher, The Wild Rose Press, discussing networking with other writers. This is an invaluable concept, especially in this digital world. If you are not fortunate enough to be involved in a local critique group or writer’s support group, there are many online venues to stay in touch with other writers, share knowledge, get feedback and suggestions. We don’t compete against each other; we are thrilled for each other’s success and strive to attain our own.

What I find equally enjoyable is networking with readers. I am fortunate to have a small following at work, people who are thrilled to know I had a new book published, Ark City Confidential, and want to own it, perhaps because of the potential of future fame. You know: “Hey, I worked with that guy.”

Beyond the scope of the “real world” I have come across readers and bloggers who enjoy getting their hands on a new book and reviewing it, sharing it within the circle of those who follow THEIR insights. The virtual bookshelves are filled with volumes from countless writers, all reaching out and hoping to find a special audience. So it is these readers and bloggers who light the path ahead and make it easier to find a worthwhile story to download on their Kindle or Nook or tablet. Obviously they are not going to sign off on anything and impugn their integrity. So it is incumbent upon all writers to put forth quality work and reach out to ALL potential readers.

Networking is a way of making new friends with like interests. On one hand it is easier now with all the internet related options. On the other hand, an author has to work harder to present themselves in as true and honest a fashion as possible without the benefit of shaking someone’s hand or looking at them in the eye. My hope is that I have been able to do that.

For your viewing pleasure, please enjoy the book trailer. And if you have purchased the book and read it, please leave a review as this is the ultimate key to an author’s success.

The 10

When I moved to Boston from Florida in 1990, I was literally starting my life over again. I had gotten divorced and had spent eight of the prior ten years in Florida, with it no longer feeling like a home and with nothing to hold me back. Moving back to Boston was like returning to my youth. Of course, at that time I was 28 and uncertain of my future. Nevertheless, it was going to be a fresh start.

Clothes, my writings, and very few personal possessions were my entire world. And books. However, since space was limited (as well as funds for shipping anything significant), I opted to bring only ten books. Twenty-seven years later, I do not recall what they were. Suffice it to say, my house is currently a small library.

It got me to thinking about what were the important books, or rather, what would be THE important books if ever I were in a position of “starting over.” I realized I could make a list now and then later, tomorrow or a month from now, that list might change. My only caveat was that I could not name “complete” volumes or collections, other than poetry. There would also have to be a viable reason for each: WHY were they important. After some thought, here is my list (at least for today) in no particular order:

1) The Bible, Old and New Testaments, King James Version. For the poetry and for the beauty of the language as well as a reminder of my ethical roots.

2) The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. A story of a spiritual journey (which I first read at a low point in my life) seems an obvious choice if I were on a new spiritual journey.

3) Ulysses by James Joyce. I’ve only started it, never delved too far in. Again, the language is magnificent and the story of a journey within a day is impressive.

4) The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Never has murder seemed to be written about with such panache. A major influence on my writing.

5) Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. The intricacies of thought coming from an insurance executive is stunning. Truly a craftsman.

6) Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. Such unbridled passion and lyricism. There is nothing like him today.

7) Jazz: A history of America’s Music by Ward and Burns. The companion piece to the documentary series. You can HEAR the music while reading.

8) The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Well, we need some good pulp fiction. Bitter, brutal, nasty, and raw.

9) The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. If you’re on a spiritual journey, it might be helpful to understand yourself.

10) On The Road by Jack Kerouac. A combination of lyricism, passion, brutal honesty, and unmitigated gall. And a reminder that the road doesn’t end.

That’s my list. I’d love to see yours.

And we’re on to the next one.

Before I left the OWFI Conference last year, someone told me that publishers were looking for series characters. I had completed my Prohibition-era crime novel, Ark City Confidential but hadn’t yet offered it to anyone. There I was on the two and a half hour ride home to Wichita thinking about a series.

Without anything more than time and some jazz and lounge music, I cobbled out in my head the “scenarios” for three stories to follow. Obviously the most important one is the next one. What I have found so far is that it is harder than writing the original. There was a sense of discovery as the characters unfolded before me, revealing themselves, with minor epiphanies along the way. I remember the “Aha!” moment at work when I figured out how it would end.

So, now it’s published. It’s out there as a real world created in my imagination. Whereas stories can change and morph during a first, second, or third draft, I am finding that it is important to keep a sense of wonder about my main character, Baron Witherspoon, the disfigured World War I vet who is a beat cop in Arkansas City, KS. I can’t act as though “Oh, I told his story in the first book and now everybody knows him.” The truth is there is still more to learn. There is always more to learn such as it is with couples, friends, or co-workers. No matter how well you think you know someone, you must expect more in terms of depth that you have not yet fathomed.

The story is emerging slowly and the secondary characters are demanding their fair share of time. As long as they are interesting, they will be more than welcome in this world. And, as with the first, there is more historical research to do to maintain the proper sense of time and place. It’s really quite funny that I had been looking for something to work on after this one was completed. Looks like I’ll be busy for a while.

A Writer Defines Success As…?

Far be it from me to advise ANY writer what the definition of “success” is on any terms: personal, professional, spiritual, or anything else. Where you are in your career and what your goals are determine that? Did John Irving consider it a success to win an Oscar for adapting his own novel, “The Cider house Rules”, into a screenplay? How could John Kennedy Toole know his novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces”, would win the Pulitzer Prize over ten years after his suicide? And John O’Brien committed suicide two weeks AFTER learning that his novel, “Leaving Las Vegas”, was going to be made into a movie. The bottom line is that we can not judge.

I started with two self-published short novels, largely so I would have something to “offer” my parents who had been so supportive and encouraging throughout my life. Just to have them read those two minor works was a success to me. In a hospital shortly before being taken to hospice, my father inquired about my forthcoming novel through a traditional publisher. Regrettably he did not live to see it published. My mother got a copy and was upset when staff at the assisted care facility were negligent in returning it to her expediently. That was her prized possession. The second novel from that publisher was released after her passing.

Now, with the release of a new historical fiction through a new publisher, I have taken a step forward. Financially? No, not yet anyway. But professionally, I took a risk writing something with a greater degree of difficulty based on the necessary research. In working with a new publisher, The Wild Rose Press, I had the opportunity to work with an editor and graphic design team and a whole group of people who were sincerely intent on looking out for my interests and encouraging me to use all the resources they had available. How is it possible to NOT consider that a success?

Don’t get me wrong. There are the fantasies/dreams/hopes of the New York Times Best Sellers List and a movie deal and attending premieres. The ultimate success? Perhaps. As long as I continue to develop as a writer, tell and engaging story, and am able to connect with readers, everything ELSE that comes from that is just additional enrichment.

If you HAVE purchased “Ark City Confidential”, please leave a review either on the publisher’s site or at Amazon. This will go a long way to ensuring a measure of success.

“Ark City Confidential” – The Book Trailer

To be perfectly honest, book trailers are a lot of fun but don’t really resonate with audiences the way movie trailers do. After all, using a visual medium to entice folks to watch…a visual medium is a no-brainer. The book trailer simply presents images that give a potential reader the added interest after seeing the book cover and reading the blurb.

It is for that reason that I have created my own for all of m traditionally published books. It just doesn’t make sense to pay for something that doesn’t yield great dividends. For me, it’s simply about maintaining the digital skills that this new world of publishing requires.

I use my own existing photos or take photos so that I don’t worry about copyright infringement. I’ve also located Kevin MacLeod’s website, Incompetech.com. A Scottish musician and composer, MacLeod offers a wide range of music royalty free as long as it is credited. A donation via Paypal is graciously accepted.

For the book trailer to “Ark City Confidential”, I started by searching for the music. Ten options presented themselves before I settled on one based on mood and tone as well as length. Then I wrote a script. Like an old college class I took over thirty years ago on writing television commercials, it would be necessary to match the sections of the script with visuals.

This is where the problem arose. This novel was a Prohibition-era crime story. There were no photos I could take locally that would present themselves ideally and I didn’t have any photos. Or did I? When my father passed away in 2012, my wife and I returned home with boxes of photo albums which turned into a nightmarish scanning project. My dad, who was nearly 90, pretty much grew up in the time period.

Then there were a few photos from the past 40 years that could be changed to black-and-white or sepia for effect. In essence, I used my family as representations of criminals in a book trailer. My grandfather, father, uncle, cousin, and even myself, all converted into 1930’s gangsters.

I think they would have been proud.

“Ark City Confidential” is available from The Wild Rose Press and on Amazon.

Wow!

Today was the release date for my Prohibition-era crime novel, Ark City Confidential.

That was the first Wow!

From the time I announced signing a contract (on my birthday, no less) to the past six weeks of blog posts, cover reveals, teasers, info, and a book trailer, there has been an amazing response, a kind of enthusiastic encouragement mixed with anticipation.

That’s been an ongoing Wow!

But today: co-workers with hugs and pats on the back; messages from family locally and afar; comments from old friends and newer ones; and responses from Facebook friends I have not yet met. I think there is a realization that writers are not out to compete so much as succeed. Granted, every writer has a different definition of success. However, I take most of these comments to mean “Hey, you did it. You accomplished something. You should be proud of yourself.”

And I am. And that’s been the biggest Wow! of all.

“Ark City Confidential” – The Challenges of Historical Fiction

You currently know how to make a call and text and surf the internet on your smart phone; where to get a quick bite to eat; how to get cash expediently. You have myriad options for entertainment whether it is television through any source, the movies, or even a video arcade. Your grocery stores are Super stores which means you can buy whatever you need just about twenty-four hours a day.

If you are writing contemporary fiction, you already know what you need to know. However, if you try to write any kind of historical fiction, you may fall into some traps.

Now, by “historical fiction” I am basically referencing anything before this time, now. The Reagan administration from 1980-1988 could be considered as historical as the French Revolution or the Crusades. We truly have no idea how life was lived in those times, the basics of everyday life. The question arises: What do we need to know and what do we need to include in our stories?

I have always felt that the more detail you provide, the more of a trap you might fall into. There is the danger of becoming so enamored of your description that you take away from the story. You might also be providing the reader with the opportunity for the classic response “That’s not how it was!”

More importantly is the manner of writing given the fact you have a 20th century mindset. A couple of flappers from the 20’s are not “besties” and the court jester to the English king during the War of the Roses was not “ROFL”. While those may be obvious examples, there are the subtle nuances that make you who you are in today’s world that have to be eliminated when writing historical fiction.

While it was a challenge, “Ark City Confidential” takes place in a time period (1930’s Depression-era America) that had always been a source of fascination for me, even while growing up. The opportunity to learn more about the state that has been my home for over 20 years was a further reward. It is my hope that I have captured the era and the essence in service to an exciting crime story.

“Ark City Confidential” has its worldwide release one week from today, January 11, 2017. It will be available in paperback and on Kindle through The Wild Rose Press and Amazon.

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