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.

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Voice

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.

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.

Hard-boiled

At the end of last year, I finished reading Max Allan Collins’ Chicago Confidential. It was my introduction to his series character Nathan Heller, a somewhat shady private investigator with a set of values and a past that includes association with gangster. The novel is strewn with historical references involving the investigation of organized crime by Senator Estes Kefauver. As such there is a plethora of real figures including the senator himself, Frank Sinatra, and Jayne Mansfield (before she became a big name actress).

I have also read several works of James Ellroy. His pieces are also infused with a historical sensibility and mention several real life people as well. They are set, like Collins’ work, in the fifties (for the most part) and weave the true factual incidents with the fictional protagonists.

So why does Ellroy ring true for me and Collins seem glib?

Collins uses first person narrative in a way that breaks down the “fourth wall” that actors often refer to. As opposed to hearing Heller speak for himself, he is talking to us, the reader in a conversational manner. But because he has done nothing to make me feel that I am OF the fifties, it seems to be a space-time continuum where a character from the fifties is speaking to me in the 2000’s. I have lost the feeling of the writing, the feeling of the time period.
Ellroy writes in third person and from multiple perspectives. His detail seeps through the pores of the writing; it IS the 1950’s (or early 1960’s as in American Tabloid) and I am eavesdropping on each scene. I am a fly on the wall.

In Collins I see the elements of hard-boiled fiction but they seem to be more like pieces in a laboratory, a scientific experiment in which ingredients are distilled down to an essence but without the spark to bring it to life.

Ellroy is scatological, irreverent, hip, and not afraid of stepping on toes. He is the vile version of Hammett, the foul-mouthed godchild to hard-boiled literature.

What I am realizing is that I don’t want my hard-boiled literature to be neat and clean. I want it to have a tarnished feel, a grittiness that is honest, and a trajectory like a bullet fired in the air on New Year’s Eve.

“Mystery” writing is fascinating but a true hard-boiled piece delves into aspects of the human psyche that almost no one outside of a Transgressive writer would even seek to explore.