A Tribute to a Black Cat

During the 1930’s, Chandler had a black Persian called Taki. He often spoke to her as if she were human. Sometimes he called her his secretary, because she frequently sat on the paper we was about to use or on copy that needed revising.

I first read this about Raymond Chandler in The Book of Lists 2 under the category 12 CAT LOVERS. The book was published in 1979. Along with it was this photo:

At the time, I was in high school, thinking I might want to be a writer, maybe a journalist, possibly in film-making. I didn’t read classic crime fiction like Chandler and Hammett, preferring mostly to watch the classic noir movies. But the thought struck me that crime novelists had black cats. I mean, what else would they have?

So, time goes along. I study screenwriting in college and didn’t do much with it. Wrote a lot of poetry, mostly tragic sobbing over a bad relationship. Got intellectual but still wasn’t writing anything worth a darn. It was in 2007 that I finally tried NaNoWriMo and the first thing I worked on was a hard-boiled noir crime drama. As dark and nasty as I could get. At the time, Mongo had been part of our household for three years along with Camille (a black and white bi-color) and Rupert (a tuxedo cat). Initially, they reminded me of Butch and Sundance and Etta, with Rupert being Butch (the thinker) and Mongo being Sundance (quick to shoot) and sweet Camille as Etta.

But then, as Mongo started to hang around in the office while I wrote, I was reminded of that Chandler photo and I realized I had Sam Spade, Joel Cairo, and Brigid O’Shaughnessy:

I was writing crime fiction and I finally had my black cat. Now all I needed was the photo:

This was the first take. I was lucky because the rest didn’t come out so well. Maybe Mongo didn’t realize what I was up to at first but he didn’t feel much like cooperating after that. I’m certainly not Raymond Chandler, but this crime writer has HIS photo with his black cat.

Mongo crossed over The Rainbow Bridge two days ago, worn out by his fight against cancer. He was truly a partner who showed me that all the best cat qualities can be found in the characters I put on paper. I will keep writing and keep reminding myself that a black cat possibly taught me more about human nature than over 35 years in customer service.

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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.

The Commitment

April was National Poetry Month. I haven’t written all that much new poetry since my days in Boston over 20 years ago. A piece here and there as something inspired me. Concurrent with that, a Facebook friend sent out a challenge for a daily minimum of 10 minutes worth of writing. I came up with a poetic idea and accepted the challenge, feeling guilty that it wasn’t fiction and, in some cases, I wrote such a brief amount. Nevertheless, this was worthwhile.

Inspired by Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, my idea was called “A Month of Sundays in Stevensville.” It was to be impressionistic snippets of what Sunday meant to me, in the distant past as well as the present. I found that it became increasingly difficult as the month went on. But I succeeded and paid homage to National Poetry Month while motivating those within the Facebook challenge.

I used to participate in NaNoWriMo and found it to be entirely useful in motivating a daily writing goal. I know these sort of things are important, especially if you find yourself in a position where “real life” is encroaching too much on your creative life. I have also learned how to integrate both which is why I do not create daily writing goals.

This does not mean that I am not motivated or that I am not committed to my efforts, regardless of what others on social media may think. You can be committed to writing every day. There is Stephen King’s famous quote about that. However, like NaNoWriMo, simply putting words to paper (if you’re Old School) does not mean a novel is finished after X amount of words or pages.

When I do sit at my laptop, I am investing my all into the work at hand, becoming annoyed at an interruption, discarding thoughts of food or anything else from the outside world. I have stepped, like Alice, into my own personal Wonderland and that is where I must be.

All I have described is my personal preferences, how I work and prefer to work. The most important thing is to be committed to your writing in a fashion that suits you. The commitment is everything.

Going forward or reaching backward?

It seems like the answer should be simple. However, depending upon your perspective, it might not be as easy at it seems.

I am currently in the middle of editing my first-ever historical crime fiction. It takes place in Arkansas City, KS in 1933-34, an absolutely marvelous time for the Depression-era American gangster. However, I have always been one to have several irons in the fire. It’s akin to cooking a multi-course meal. I’ve been dabbling with something that might turn out to be a novella or a long short story. But I really want another novel as the next project.

This brings me to the question and the decision at hand. I can either wait for the ideal inspiration, seek out something new. Or, I can revisit an old piece, maybe something that was a former NaNoWriMo that just plain out sucked after completion or a piece I started with more noble intentions that had apparently faded.

That’s where the problem arises. It’s the week before Christmas and I have got some serious cooking and baking to do. I don’t ever really drop writing altogether during the holidays and I definitely want to have a new piece ready to work on once the time presents itself.

For fun, I’m going to make a brief list of ideas and see what kind of feedback I get. Are you game?

(1) “Professor Thug” – A different kind of college professor, one with perhaps a dubious background and dresses like a street thug but presents a high IQ. He gets involved in solving a murder of a former student with the help of his current teaching assistant and a naive senior.

(2) “The Stooges” – The highly ridiculous adventures of three would-be criminals who recognize their need to commit a lucrative crime in order to be solvent but have no idea what kind of caper to pull. This takes its inspiration from the great comic trio but with decidedly worse language.

(3) “12 Hours in Wichita” – An undeveloped idea for a neo-noir piece involving an enforcer coming to the city to settle a dispute between two factions of a criminal enterprise and all taking place within the confines of a fixed time period to heighten the suspense.

(4) Wait for inspiration and seek something out completely new, off the beaten path, and slightly experimental.

If you’ve got an opinion, I’d love to hear it.

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.

Biting the hand?

My first experience with NaNoWriMo was in 2007. That work was “Swan Song”, which was published by Deadly Niche Press on Christmas Day 2012. I completed 2008 and then my 2009 effort, “The .9 mm Solution” will be published by the same publisher later this year. I went on to complete three more and “won” NaNoWriMo a total of six times in six years.

So, why aren’t I participating this year? I could simply say that writers must change in order to continue to develop and grow. That might sound hokey but part of it is true. Six years ago, I needed something to jump-start my writing. When I came across the madness of attempting to write a 50,000 word novel in thirty days, I figured I had found the jolt of energy I was looking for. However, in a recent discussion with my wife, she asked about the effort from last year or the year before. She hadn’t read them or even known what they were about. That was because I did nothing with them. Not shortly thereafter nor since.

It had all become simply a race to the finish, finding anyway to make 50,000 words stick to the paper. Spell out numbers and remove hyphens. Do not ever use contractions. Go into elaborate monologues or dialogues. Describe the hell out of something banal. Count those words. No story. No plot. No character. Just words. Okay, and maybe later you go back and form something out of it. Which, in essence is saying “I’m willing to waste 30 days of my life for what essentially is a game.

Hold on before you blame me for biting the hand that fed me and helped me create two novels which were traditionally published. Let’s remember this online international event is only motivation. It has absolutely nothing to do with craft or development, in and of itself. Yes, it is a fun challenge. But unless you’re Joey Chestnut, there is no reason to eat 60+ hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. For seven consecutive years.

I give NaNoWriMo all the credit in the world for motivating me at a time when I needed to just write. They were my training wheels. Now, it is far more important to work on craft, plot development, interesting and yet realistic dialogue, twists, unexpected endings. As a writer I need to find quality words and turns of phrase rather than bulk my manuscript with pabulum. I am no longer impressed with myself or anyone else for “winning”, whether it is in thirty days or ten (because they have so much time on their hands and this seems like fun).

Writing is a long and arduous process that requires your complete attention, not just for thirty days, but always. So, slow down and focus. Pay attention to your writing and leave the games to those who need the motivation.

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.

The Madness that IS NaNoWriMo

Well, another November has passed and another “successful” attempt at NaNoWriMo. By that I mean I write a 50,000 word “novel” within the thirty day time frame. That’s five years in a row. Woo hoo! Drop the confetti and break out the champagne. I just won the Super Bowl.

A bit of sarcasm? Yes, certainly. And for several reasons. The first is that 50,000 words is not really a novel, more like a novella. When Colleen Lindsay was still a literary agent, I sent her a query letter. It asked for the number of words. My manuscript was between 50 and 60 thousand words. I got back an automated response indicating that it was too short. She didn’t even read my query; good, bad, or indifferent, her computerized system decided to filter me out. So either she was extremely picky or Chris Baty (founder of NaNoWriMo) is lying about 50,000 words being a novel.

Second, what kind of writing is it that puts you on such a heated deadline and expects something resembling a story? That’s the point. There is no sense to be made of it. You could be like Jack Nicholson from The Shining and just right “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” five thousand times and, voila, you’ve won NaNoWriMo.

Third, after you’ve done it a few times, it’s not about be able to finish but doing it in the quickest time possible. The tenth, twelfth, fourteenth of the month and you are a certified hero to your NaNo friends. What if, at the stroke of midnight on October 31, having consumed copious amounts of your favorite caffeine, started writing just about anything, would it be possible to complete it in one day?

There is the positive side. it forces you to sit down and write, perhaps not totally meaningless yet not as structured as you would like. It does give you a sense of accomplishment. It’s good training for freelancers who want to know what it’s like to work on a deadline.

As far as the overall quality, pay no attention at all to that first so-called draft. It’s worthless. My first three efforts have undergone revision and still (in my mind, at least) have some merit. Last year’s had great characters and a good concept but the story was so highly illogical with subplots started and stopped in the same chapter and minor characters brought in like deus ex machina.

This year, I was on vacation for the first five days of the month and I still wanted to compete. So I outlined twenty-five chapters of two thousand words each, knowing that if I stuck to my schedule I would “win”. On top of that, I wrote early on weekends and doubled up on some evenings. All for the sake of a 50,000 word story to upload and be verified so I could print up a cute certificate and download some impressive badges for use on Facebook and my website and my blog. Gee whiz!

I can’t wait until next year.

Skating on Ice versus Swimming in the Lake

Since 2007, there has been a flurry of writing activity for me.

I have participated in NaNoWriMo, that madcap literary dash to the finish, writing (scribing, transcribing, composing, etc.) 50,000 words on a “novel” within the month of November. And I have successfully completed this event in each of the last four years. I put it aside for the month of December and then begin the new year with a rewrite, editing, polish, etc. But not really.

After a profoundly interesting meeting of the Kansas Writer’s Association in May 2009, I realized many things that I did not know about networking and blogging and self-publishing with POD services, etc. So, I got business cards, started this blog, found two short novels of mine ripe for publication and set to the task of networking. But not really.

With my wife’s help, I reorganized the office, separated personal from writing, and got myself in a position to take care of household needs separate from literary ones. But not really.

Since 2007, I’ve been only touching the surface of these things, skating on a thin layer of ice, polishing the impressions while fearful of falling and losing ground. I should have been diving into the warmth of a lake in summer, splashing around, unafraid of getting wet or staying out too late.

I wrote recently of having lost notes regarding a novel I was still working on in first draft. It occurred to me that perhaps this was a wake up call to go slower, refocus the efforts on work that needs more attention. I need to take some pieces that are good but not great, interesting but not fascinating, entertaining but not must-read and flesh them out and bring them to a truer point of completion.

So, whereas my 2011 Writing Goals shows that I wanted to work on two new pieces, I am revising even that. My focus will be on three works (perhaps a fourth) that will undergo extreme scrutiny and finer revision. I will slow down the train of the agent search before I derail myself. I will place unwavering attention on the skill and the craft and the art.

I will finalize two poetry collection manuscripts for publication on Lulu only because, well, they’re poetry and the whole idea of Lulu for poetry reminds me of when everyone was putting out their work in chapbooks.

It’s winter time. we just had a snowstorm here in the Wichita, KS area and we got about 7-9 inches of snow. That’s the real world. As far as my writing is concerned, I’m going to go swimming in the lake for a while.

Reflections on Resolutions

It was about a year ago that I composed a document: 2010 Writing Goals. I had never been much for New Year’s resolutions relating to diet or lifestyle or anything, really. But by the end of last year, I had started blogging and had published a book “Kansas Two-Step” on lulu.com, had gotten rather quaint business cards from VistaPrint, and felt that in some small way I was making progress and wanted to continue to encourage my own growth as a writer.
After printing up this document, I taped it to a shelf above my computer so that I could simply look up and refresh my waning memory. Well, it’s a year later and I am taking account of my efforts.
EDIT
I wanted to work on editing four novels. I did a fifth and sixth draft of “The .9 MM Solution” and a fourth and fifth draft of “Swansong”. Both were NaNoWriMo efforts. I did not get started on “Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing” (my transgressive novel) or “The Stooges” (another NaNoWriMo effort).
COMPLETE
I wanted to complete a first draft on two recent efforts: “The Last Road” (a literary piece about a widower’s cross-country adventure) and “All Day Long I Biddy Biddy Bum” (another even darker transgressive piece). The only NEW writing efforts were “Professor thug” (this year’s NaNoWriMo) and “Unemployed and Dangerous: A Trilogy of Transgressive Novellas”. After being terminated from my job of thirteen years, I had a lot of understandable anger which I filtered into these works. EXTREMELY dark in nature, they are not something I want to present to my 80+ year old parents as an example of my efforts. However, they do stand on their own as strong, well-defined pieces.
ACCOMPLISH
Multiple things on this section. No luck yet with finding an agent although I gave a four-week exclusive to Jessica Regel of the Jean V Naggar Literary Agency. Even though that did not turn out the way I wanted, it was a very good step.
As for networking efforts, I got onto Facebook and actively sought out people with the additional repercussion of contact relatives that I either hadn’t talked to in years or had allowed my efforts to lapse. Bonus points for that.
I did get two more books onto Lulu: “Quick” and the aforementioned “Unemployed and Dangerous”. In doing so I continued learning formatting and cover art (thanking my wife/my editor for the photo on “Quick”).
I started initial research on web sites and my brother-in-law (a talented software engineer who also happened to inspire “The .9 mm Solution”) offered his assistance.
Not on the original list was attending Writer’s conferences but I did go to the KWA Scene Conference here in Wichita as well as a seminar by Gordon Kessler earlier in the year. I also learned how to make small movies on Windows Movie Maker. I’m working on a book trailer, just to develop my skills. In the meantime, I did a project for the family for Christmas that was highly entertaining, especially if you know my family.
And finally, there was blogging. I may not have presented as many articles as I desired but I did what time would allow. And I also avidly followed other writers whose efforts seem somewhat similar to mine: refreshing commentary on their lives as writers.
Jennifer Neri (http://jenniferneri.wordpress.com/), a writer from Canada who shared her experiences with motherhood over the past year and still had time to pass on significant motivational comments.
Lawrence Estrey (http://lawrenceez.wordpress.com/), a writer and photographer and IT kind of guy from north of London who writes psychological thrillers, takes very moving photos, and has impressive feedback regarding storage systems and photo editing software.
Ryan David Jahn (http://gunsandverbs.wordpress.com/), a crime writer from Los Angeles, whose novel “Acts of Violence” won the Crime Writer’s Association Dagger award and yet talks about day-to-day life and his impressions of the minutiae as though they should be considered more strongly than the greater events.
Teresa Frohock (http://frohock.wordpress.com/), a dark fantasy and horror writer who gleefully advised her readers of her representation by Weronika Janczuk of D4EO and then of her sale of her book “Miserere: An Autumn Tale” while those of us who read her blog gleefully cheered alongside her.
I wish I could say that I follow more blogs regularly but Time is a beast with wings hovering over my life as a husband and homeowner and employee.
Overall, I would say that I got through nearly half of my goals, some to differing degrees than others. It is not measured as SUCCESS/FAILURE or PASS/FAIL but rather as another chapter on a long road. At some point within the next couple of days I will create a new document and tape it to the shelf above me. And I will proceed and continue and persevere and think and create.
And write.

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