What if…

Those two words are the only magic a writer needs. They have been a mantra for me for many years as stories have developed from the mere notion of possibilities.

What if…A disgraced former Wichita cop who now is the chief of security at a casino in Minnesota is drawn home because of a mysterious phone call referencing the fate of his younger brother. (“Swan Song”, currently out of print.)

What if…A series of murders are occurring around the country in which criminals who haven’t been prosecuted or got off are being executed and a team of profilers finally determine it is the same perpetrator. (“The .9 mm Solution”, currently out of print.)

What if…A disfigured World War I veteran, now a beat cop in a small Kansas town, determines a new guy in town is likely a Chicago gangster and a key to his past. (“Ark City Confidential.“)

What if…A divorced forty-something man who hates his job and the petty commercialization of today’s society takes up contract killing to relieve his boredom. (“Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing”, unpublished.)

You watch the news, read a magazine article, have a general conversation, and, if you are perceptive, the possibilities materialize in your mind’s eye like a High Definition Wide-Screen movie and you follow along gleefully. That’s the key: being aware, being open, making yourself ready to recognize when stories fall into your lap.

We know there is much work after that. Outline, plotting, story arc, character development, your agent, your publisher, your editor, etc. But it starts somewhere very special. All with a simple…What if!


The public and private face of a writer

You may have seen me at book signings or a writers conference. We could have run into each other at the grocery store. I know we’ve talked about the current book, the new book, the audio version while at work and wondered if you, too, can get your name included (i.e. “be a character”). This is the outgoing face of a writer, the person who recognizes that the product IS the person. However, in order to get to that point, there is an awful lot that goes on behind the scenes, shall we say, that most people are not aware of.

First, most writers have their own special place where they reside: an office, an unused bedroom, even a corner of the dining room table after the meal is over. Many writers also retire to the confines of a coffee shop or small bistro with wi-fi in order to get away from the staid old surroundings of the familiar in hopes of generating the energy required to write. By this, we refer to mental energy, the fuel for any creative effort.

Depending on whether your “old school” or not, there is a kind of notebook, whether written or digital, that contains ideas and research material, character bios and possible plot lines. This goes alongside the laptop, tablet, or one-subject notebook where the work is being created.

While the external world provides the sensory data and experiences that are necessary, it is necessary to exclude it during this process. Perhaps if I were writing poetry and wanted to be inspired, I would be like Wordsworth and remain outdoors. When writing historical crime fiction, as I do, I need to be able to eliminate modern contrivances to allow my mind to inhabit a time period seventy or eighty years prior.

“Sorry to bother you” is an expression that, although gracious in its sentiment, breaks the concentration, especially if a scene was progressing fabulously. Gritting teeth and almost pounding the fists after an intrusion does nothing to regain composure but is a required outlet.

“I really need to get this done” is a comment made with a trembling of guilt in the voice because, after all, is writing more important than anything else? The answer is Yes.

As with all other efforts, there will be a time when the writer tires. It takes a great deal of that mental energy to write a chapter or edit a manuscript. If you are not a full-time writer (i.e. you have a day job and other domestic responsibilities), you may go into a writing session already short on energy. However, just being able to get something accomplished provides a great feeling of satisfaction.

In a rush, there is reaching out to your publisher, working with your editor, doing a cover reveal, announcing the release date, making marketing plans, creating a book trailer. All this requires yet another form of energy and specific mental calculation.

And everything leads to that guy you see at a writers conference or in the office, energetically talking about his book and the writing process. You will only ever see the public face.

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.

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.


I just started working with a new editor on the follow-up to Ark City Confidential. From one of her earlier e-mails she wrote:

“I enjoy your writing style and the tight control you have on writing.”

This is amazingly gracious especially from an editor. It was also something that got me to thinking more about “my style” and more importantly, my voice. I don’t believe that either develop from a conscious effort. Much as learn and develop your craft, your style and voice emerge from it.

Prior to actually reading classic hard-boiled fiction, I was very interested in film noir, even more so as I was attending the University of Miami in the early 80’s and studying screen writing and film-making. The genre, whose name was coined by the French, emerged from the German expressionists of the 20’s. Blacks and whites and grays combined with disorienting angles all for the purpose of revealing the uglier side of the human condition. Just check out The Lady From Shanghai or Touch of Evil, both by Orson Welles.

Now, I’m not a tough guy by any means. But as I developed a penchant for writing crime fiction, the lyricism of Raymond Chandler, the desolation of Cornell Woolrich, the rugged individuality of Dashiell Hammett, and the scatological poetry of James Ellroy all influenced me. Like ingredients in a fancy cocktail, these authors and their work were shaken up and filtered through my background, my sensibilities, and even my strengths and weaknesses as a person.

I certainly can’t describe my style or my voice. It would be like finding definitive attributes as to why I love my wife. Sometimes a thing exists, can be sensed and experienced without words. This would be the truest irony: being unable to define my own voice.

It is possible that, over time, that voice may change, much in the way that my style has developed up and around the craft itself. For right now, I deeply enjoy getting to know myself as a writer.

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.

I’m doing it backwards!

In past posts, I have discussed differing writing styles, tendencies, and trends that I have in comparison to other writers. The “way” they tell you to do it in books. The “best practices” that are instructed in writers conferences or even in schools (although it has been 34 years since I last took a Creative Writing class).

I am a big advocate for doing what works best for the individual. By the time you are connected to an editor through a publisher, your “style” may be forced to change to meet the deadlines placed before you. In the meantime, until you get to that point, write as you wish.

If I actually paid attention to the books and the instruction, I would have to admit that I am doing things…backward! Assuming that the editing and revising process is for chipping away at a bunch of extra stuff you threw in on the first draft, a la a NaNoWriMo effort, all subsequent drafts are a purge and a cleanse. However, I am creating characters and telling a story in my first draft and am driven to just, for lack of a better description, getting it out.

In both my first historical crime fiction, “Ark City Confidential”, as well as the recently completed follow-up, I have come to realize that I am adding on to drafts two and three before purging and cleaning in draft four and onward. I look for logic errors in terms of character description or designation, add scene enhancements to color and flavor, maybe even throw in a red herring I hadn’t considered before.

I remember seeing a video on YouTube by Les Edgerton, who I had met at the OWFI conference a couple of years ago. He was fascinating and had some definitive ideas about writing. In the video, he talked about the process of being meticulous in his first draft in terms of sentence structure, word choice, and storytelling. There was an absolute precision about the first draft, no matter how long it took.

While I respect Les and his craft, that doesn’t work for me. Some people might point to his publishing success as an end result of his process. While there may be a correlation, I enjoy writing, the process of writing, and the craft. Publishing is a by-product of that process. So, while I respect and admire teachers of any sort, I also recognize the myriad methodologies that exist and the countless writers honing their craft.

Direction is a matter of perspective. Am I doing it backwards? Depends upon your point of view.

So much more to do!

What do you do after you’ve worked hard to write a book in a totally new genre, found a publisher, gone through the editing process, and eagerly awaited the publication date of your book? You write the next one.

But, wait, there’s all that marketing and promotional stuff and advertising and….

Yes, but you still have to write. You ARE a writer, first and foremost

If it feels like my head is spinning, it’s because it is. I made a promise to myself to complete the first draft of the follow up to Ark City Confidential, my Prohibition-era crime novel set in rural Kansas. And I did. This way I could focus on the OWFI conference. Which I also did.

Then, I outlined the third book in the series just because, well, the story was playing around in my mind and needed to at the very least be written down. So, now as I go back to the editing/rewriting process of the second one, I’ve come across more marketing opportunities for the first one and…

Oh, yeah, and I’ve got to make my lunch for work tomorrow and make a list for grocery shopping on Sunday and…

When you are a writer, you are literally in the middle of a tornado. (A fitting analogy for the guy who lives in Kansas.) There is no rest. I mean, here it is, Thursday night, paying bills, and I’m taking the time to write a blog post because I have something to say (wild and chaotic but it is SOMETHING!).

The most important thing to realize is that there is a “business” side to the arts, any discipline, and it has to fit in like a snug jigsaw puzzle piece into the rest of your life. There is so much more to do, yes. And with all this, I am enjoying every moment.

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.

This Will Do Just Fine…For Now

As a writer, do you crave being able to write full-time? Not working for someone else? Creating and managing your own schedule? Beholden to no one but yourself? Yeah, so do I.

Here’s how I imagine my typical day as a full-time writer:

I’d still wake up early because I’ve grown accustomed to working out in the morning. Shower and then spend time with my wife over coffee (because she still works a regular job). After she leaves, a couple of hours of writing. Or, if that day called for it, editing/revising. Late morning, I’d switch over to social networking. Not the aimless “let’s scroll through every account to find out what’s happening” that’s usually done. Instead, there would be a new blog post, directed Tweets, new photos on Instagram, maybe shoot out a newsletter to my e-mail list. (By then, I would have one.) A quick lunch. I love cooking but I don’t cook for me. If the wife had honey-dos or errands for me to run, that’s where the afternoon comes in. I remind her I’m happy to do them, but you’ve got to remember I’d be taking time out from my “job.” I might be able to get in another hour’s worth of writing before she gets home. That’s when I fix dinner. We catch up on the day. I clean up the dishes and it’s writing for the rest of the evening, maybe a little reading. A typical day not including readings, book signings, writer’s conferences, meetings with publishers/agents/editors/anyone important.


That job that earns me a regular paycheck requires travel to and from, focus and dedication if I want to keep earning that paycheck. I still squeeze in a bit of networking on breaks and lunch, get some reading done, chat with co-workers who are writers or otherwise artistically inclined. My focus, however, is on the job and being good at it and keeping it. I get the evening to squeeze in writing, blog posts, more social connectivity. That’s what it is, folks. That’s what “Real Life” is. The big paragraph above, that’s a goal, sure, but one that requires an awful lot of work to get to.

Let me be clear: I do not bemoan my life. No matter what you do or desire to do, there is a lot of the mundane you must walk through, like a tropical jungle. And you have a machete in your hand and your chopping away at the vines and plants that are blocking your path. That line from Confucius: It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.

So, I am at a good place. Okay, I’m not a full-time writer. But this will do just fine. For now.

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