An Open Letter to KWA

As a former president and current member of the Kansas Writers Association, is it incumbent on me (as it is all members) to state my feelings regarding the forthcoming changes to the organization.

It is noble to recognize that an organization in existence for over 16 years which has not ostensibly changed since that time is no longer serving the needs of its members. Change can be painful, especially to those of the “Old School” who constantly repeat the mantra “This is not how we used to do it”. Those are naysayers. The individuals in KWA who have recognized a need for dramatic change are to be commended.

However, both the recent newsletter and web page article, “The Future of KWA”, send mixed messages which require clear and precise clarification.

From the article: We had several Board meetings in July to discuss how to make KWA relevant. We kept several questions in mind: What would best serve our membership? How do we offer our members even more opportunities to interact? How do we promote our members – and help them learn how to promote themselves? How do we best utilize our resources? We took a hard look at all of our offerings to decide what to focus on for our future.

This is followed immediately by the declaration that there will no longer be an Adult Contest nor a Scene Conference. However, a Youth Conference will still be offered. Unless the age demographic has changed dramatically since my departure from the Board in April of this year, I do not see how this serves the membership, which is made up largely of adults. Youth writers will not attend monthly meetings, will not have the time available to commit to such an organization, and will not be the focal point of networking with adult writers. I feel this focus serves the need of Board members more than general membership.

From the article: “Gordon Kessler, our current Ambassador and founding member of KWA, is going to start an affiliate program in the Kansas City area. We’re not quite sure what that entails just yet, but we are excited to be able to reach more of Kansas.

If the intention is to downsize the organization to a manageable level, how can an affiliate program in another city serve the current membership? Additionally, for the current Board to be uncertain of the details is disturbing as it appears to be more of a whim than a concrete idea, serving the interests of a one individual member and, once again, have no relevant bearing or usefulness for the general membership.

There are many members of KWA who do not come regularly to meetings and some who have never attended a meeting. The aspects of networking to them is more significant. If such members are not on Facebook, their only viable connectivity is via a monthly newsletter, which can include pictures and links. From the August newsletter: ” We don’t live in a society that waits by the mailbox for a monthly volume of news to arrive. News is happening right now and anything from last hour is old, so why hang onto an aging format?” As the current membership has an older demographic, there are still individuals who do not share this digital vision. Nevertheless, this notion was broached nearly a year ago and it was rejected under the premise of respect for the older members. Does this change indicate that respect is lost or simply that it is too difficult to put together a viable monthly newsletter?

Rather than focus of platforms and query letters and marketing and agents and e-publishing, the focus should be on the craft of writing. The indication that regular write-ins will be conducted and critique groups will be encouraged is definitely a step in the right direction. However, I still sense that the Board is considering its needs over that of the general membership. Politics still play a part in an artistic group. Whereas the popular response to that is “That’s just the way things are”, I reject the notion entirely. There is no room for this type of attitude when the goal is to help others develop their skills. What purpose does it serve to denigrate the speakers at a conference…on the morning of the conference, yet never having lifted a finger to provide meaningful input, assistance, or support? The Board does not need to be filled with warm bodies but rather scintillating minds.

Beyond looking at the organization as a whole, the Board needs to look at themselves. Anything short of a completely altruistic attitude does not belong. Change can be painful. But in order to move into the future, KWA needs to break with the past and not simply in terms of presentations and newsletters. Active recruitment of new membership from all writing genres and styles. Community involvement to seek out the fringe artists who do not have a unified organization to connect with. “Cross pollinating” with other art forms and other artists within Wichita and the surrounding area.

In the end, the organization will follow the dictates of the Board unless the general membership speaks up loudly and proclaims “This is MY organization and I want you to speak to MY concerns.” Otherwise, a great notion will become a memory.

[Some may question why I chose this forum, my blog, to make these comments. I know that some of my followers are nowhere near Kansas. Perhaps they are interested in joining a writing group in their own area and will use this as a cautionary tale.

However, it was done as much for a sense of free speech. When I posted on the KWA Facebook Page my resignation from the presidency, the post was taken down the next day with the commentary that I was airing dirty laundry. The irony can not be overlooked: a writers group censoring a writer.

This was meant as an open letter and, as such, invites open civil commentary. Perhaps I will be ignored. That will be more telling than any retort. My honest hope is that the organization will survive for the betterment of the general membership. I wish you well.]

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After the Conference

I said yesterday that the 2013 KWA Scene Conference was like a wedding: Nothing was perfect and everything was beautiful. In the end, you only remember the good things. It will be left to those of us on the KWA board to sort through things, analyze and evaluate.

I truly feel blessed to have had such wonderful and diverse speakers. Stan Finger’s presentation on his book, “Into the Deep”, was completely moving and inspirational. Esper’s discourse on YouTube as a viable platform opened many people’s eyes, almost as much as his work. Roy Wenzl gave sound advise for writers regarding focusing on story and NOT the author. We will look forward to his new book on Father Emil Kapaun. John Jenkinson showed that the author’s voice can be tinged with humor while making a statement.

But there was no doubt that Jenna Blum, the keynote speaker, was our star. With great wit, she challenged those to work hard, as hard as she did through over 100 agent rejections, to bring your stories to life and see them through to being published.

There are so many things that a writing conference can be. There are only a few things that it should be. That is: entertaining, informative, and inspiring. I believe we accomplished that.

Putting on a Conference – KWA Scene Conference, Mar. 16, 2013

Have you ever organized a conference of any kind? Neither have I. But I’m doing. With the help of the board of the Kansas Writers Association, the KWA Scene Conference is less than a week away.

I didn’t know anyone of enough stature who could speak at a conference. But one recommendation led to more. Surprisingly, they all were from the Wichita, KS area. Just shows you that there’s talent everywhere.

Sometimes, my “Old School” mind hides the possibilities of the digital age. I created a commercial for YouTube. Who creates a commercial for a writer’s conference? I did.

Our Newsletter editor became a de facto Promotions Director and called around to local businesses. I’m almost sure she’s never done anything like that before. But now we have sponsors and prize giveaways. We added Events to various websites.

And when the flyers and online info wasn’t enough, well, I made the sacrifice to go on t.v. (Hey, somebody had to do it.) KSCW agreed to interview me for their morning news show. Kara Newell, the host, was a real professional.

I’m scheduled to go on KSN, the NBC affiliate on Tuesday, Mar. 12. The two appearances combined don’t even come close to fifteen minutes of fame. But they may encourage or inspire a writer out there to figure it is time to expand upon their knowledge and networking.

Sometimes I think I don’t know what I’m doing. I just figure it’s better to do everything.

How Pitchapalooza Led to a Book Deal

Pitchapalooza is a strange and unique event. Hosted by The Book Doctors, it offers the participants the opportunity for a one minute pitch. No more, no less, than one minute. After you have made your pitch, you are critiqued on it with the aim to help you make your pitch better. The winner gets a future meeting with an agent or publisher or editor uniquely qualified to assist.

You never know what it will lead to. This is my story.

SPOILER ALERT: I did NOT win.

It was at the KWA Scene Conference in 2012 that I participated. On this blog, I debated which of two pieces to pitch: a traditional neo-noir hardboiled mystery or an experimental piece of Transgressive fiction. I chose the latter. It was unique enough to stand out even though it might not be the most commercial piece to pitch.

I had looked up Pitchapalooza on YouTube and saw several examples. I wrote and re-wrote my pitch. I practiced. At the Friday night session, the twenty entrants were randomly drawn. I was confident going in. But as the participants came and went, I waited. And waited. And waited. Nerves were starting to settle in.

And then I was called. And, to be honest, I nailed it. I hit it out of the park. Pick your own analogy. But I did what I was supposed to do. I was ready for that cash bar.

At the end of the session, the five panelists excused themselves for a review/vote/consultation. They came back a short time later to announce that they had a winner AND an honorable mention. I knew from my research that was unheard of. They did not usually have Honorable Mentions. I was announced as that rare honoree. Initially I was disappointed but having been mentioned at all, to have been considered, WAS a victory.

One of the panelists was Dan Case of AWOC.COM Publishing who was quite taken with my pitch, my story, and me. I had a one-on-one session with him on Saturday as well as one with Arielle Eckstut, one of the Book Doctors.

Flash forward two months to the OWFI Conference. One of the sessions was on the Elevator Pitch. Again, my Transgressive work, having recently been perfected, was blurted out in a one sentence pitch. More applause and appreciation.

I run into Dan Case. He remembers me. He still wants to see what I’ve got up my sleeve. I send him both pieces that I pitched back at the KWA Scene Conference. We can flash forward some more. Because Dan Case decides to publish the neo-noir hardboiled mystery, “Swan Song”, currently available on Amazon Kindle and Paperback, Barnes and Noble Nook and Paperback, and Kobo e-books.

It’s really mind-boggling, amazing, fascinating, and fun, all at the same time. I keep thinking that Raymond Chandler published his first novel, “The Big Sleep”, when he was 51. I beat him by six months.

It’s only a start. I know that. I don’t know where it actually goes from here. But it all really started because of a crazy event called Pitchapalooza.

The Evolution of a Novel – “Swan Song”

Why do writers write? It is the fascination and obsession with the Word. Their connection, their sound, their emotional weight. We are story tellers and we tell our stories with words.

This is the story of “Swan Song”, my debut novel published by Deadly Niche Press. {The Kindle Edition is available at Amazon.com; the print version will be available after the first of the year.}

In 2007, I won a prize in the Adult Poetry Division of the Kansas Writer’s Association’s yearly contest. At the presentation and corresponding reading at Watermark Books in Wichita, KS, I talked with Storme Maynard who told me about a strange thing called NaNoWriMo. All you had to do was write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. No problem, right?

The stress of the thing was palpable. Writing poetry in Boston in the mid 1990’s was a thought-provoking, emotional, and at times intellectual process. But we took our time until we got it right. This thing was literary insanity. But I finished it; I completed a “book”, such as it was. However, looking over my effort in December was out of the question. The holidays were approaching and I didn’t want my sloppy 50,000 words to depress.

I did work on it. Many times through several years. Eventually I came up with a piece of neo-noir hardboiled fiction that still captures my attention and creates striking images in my mind. Keep in mind that it is still nothing more than a manuscript at this time.

That is until I met Dan Case of AWOC.com. He was a speaker at the KWA Scene Conference in 2012 and a panelist for Pitchapalooza, sponsored by The Book Doctors, David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut. In a what-the-heck kind of moment I decided to pitch my Transgressive novel, Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing. I got an honorable mention for my pitch and some additional people looking in my direction, one of whom was Dan Case.

I ran into him at the OWFI Conference in May. We talked; he said he was interested and so was I. I sent him the manuscript for both. Knowing that the Transgressive piece might be a harder sell, he opted to start with “Swan Song” which has just been released as an e-book.

I am thrilled and pleased and know that the work has just begun. But consider the evolution: writing contest to casual conversation to online writing event to writer’s conference to pitch session to another writer’s conference…

There are those who say that NaNoWriMo is silly and it’s not really about the art and craft of writing. There are those who say that writing conferences are a venue for published novelists to garner attention. There are those who think that an e-book is somehow not a “real” book.

Whoever those people are, I do not agree with them.

I Write Transgressive Fiction; Does That Make Me a Bad Guy?

I got a Tweet from David Henry Sterry, one half of The Book Doctors. I had met him and his wife, Arielle Eckstut, at the KWA Scene Conference in March of this year while competing in Pitchapalooza. I pitched my dark comic Transgressive novel Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing and was well received.

The Tweet from David was “what exactly is transgressive fiction?” I responded “Main characters who feel confined by the norms of society. Think Fight Club & American Psycho. (was this a test?)” He came back with “not a test. just curious. is curious george transgressive character? cat in the hat? certainly max from wild things, right? ” Interesting. I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective. I clarified: “Got to add drugs, sex, violence and other taboo subjects into the mix. For the characters, THAT’S normal.” Sometimes the Socratic method does work best.

For my own interests, I looked researched on Wikipedia and found this definition by LA Times literary critic, Michael Silverblatt:

“A literary genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premise that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge.”

I looked back at my novel and the other collection I put together, Unemployed and Dangerous: A Trilogy of Transgressive Novellas. Was my work really like this? It was true that I explored very dark themes. The approach was offbeat, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, somewhat lyrical. There was an off-handedness to the extreme behavior, as though it were all just normal.

I have worked in customer service or retail for the better part of thirty years. I am certain that my life experience has informed my writing. I have always enjoyed film noir from the 40’s and 50’s, especially with the deep and dark psychological undertones. There is more than just crime in good crime fiction.

I had to go very deep within myself for that collection of novellas, scaring me at times and my wife just enough, before we both realized that I was lowering myself into a well but also pulling myself back up. And yet I know it’s there.

So, I conclude that I am NOT a bad guy but one who recognizes the possibility of badness, madness, degradation, and despair. Just as it is within all of us. And it is daring and scary to dive into those waters for the sake of a piece of writing and it is a dangerous journey to come back to stable ground. It creates an understanding of duality. It forces self-examination, which is necessary on both a personal and artistic level. It broadens the scope of character and literary skill.

I choose to go there knowing that I have the strength of will and the love of my wife to get back. I would not be satisfied any other way.

A Worthwhile Responsibility

Yesterday, I was voted in as the president of theKwa, the Kansas Writer’s Association. I had already been feted to become president in 2013. But the sudden resignation of founder and recent president Gordon Kessler created an instant vacuum.

Enter The Tikiman, aka “Rabbi” Dude.

Well, it seemed like I was jumping aboard a moving train, loaded with freight and heading for a pre-determined destination. No worries. All you need are a passion for writers and writing and a desire to foster a community of individuals with an artistic temperament. All things being equal, it feels like the Boston Poetry Scene from the mid-90’s.

This is a responsibility that I relish, not for any sense of glamour or prestige or to add a bullet point to my obituary. This is exciting because lighting the fuse of conversation, setting off an explosive interaction, creating an environment of discussion and networking is worthwhile.

I know people will see beyond the manic personality and the Hawaiian shirts and be glad that they are on that same freight train. The adventure is just beginning.

Cully Abrell and The Tahitian Room

This past Saturday, April 16, the KWA (Kansas Writer’s Association) used a road trip to hold their monthly meeting. A barn that has been turned into a bar called The Tahitian Room with eclectic garage sale collectibles in Peck, KS was the site.

The host was Cully Abrell, born James Clayton Abrell. He is former actor and screenwriter (with movie credits found on IMDB.COM), who holds a Master’s in Dramatics from SIU (without the benefit of a high school diploma) and was a former professor of Dramatics at Friends University. To call him a character is missing half of his charm. He is an inveterate story-teller.

His wife, Sue, seemed to be more than a match for him and she was the ultimate hostess. (She took pleasure in showing me a 4x Hawaiian shirt that she was tailoring for a friend. It had a black background with an intricate pattern. She also liked my salmon Polynesian lady shirt from Mauishirts.com)

I arrived early and was treated to the best dry Beefeater martini that I have ever had in my life. (And I should know.) He used a twist of red grapefruit in the shaker and placed the glasses in the freezer to chill them before pouring. His back was turned to me while he was preparing them so I couldn’t tell how much (if any) vermouth he used. Other members filtered in; a food and snack table was set up; there were stories of the last time many of the longer-standing members visited; and several great anecdotes.

Despite the ambiance and decor, we did actually have a meeting. The primary theme was on dialogue. Despite the fact that Cully’s main focus had been theater, he provided several examples of the importance of dialogue in fiction. One phrase that he used was “Skip to the next line.” In regular real-life conversation, everything that is said would wind up being boring or unimportant in a sequence in a fictional story. By skipping to the next line, you are getting to the real dramatic meat and pushing the story forward.

Two other comments he made struck me as being key definitions in regard to the craft of writing. He said that Humor was the Unexpected without danger but that Terror was the Unexpected with danger. And finally, Technique is what you do; Style is how you do it.

Cully is 84 and quite deaf but his voice is clear and resonant. His mind is sharper than the proverbial tack. He invited us back for another meeting much sooner than the time KWA was out there 10 years ago.

For the camaraderie, for the insight, and, yes, for the martinis, I couldn’t agree more.