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 (“Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing”, unpublished.)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.

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.

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.

“Persistence” is not a four-letter word.

Those who watched super Bowl LI saw a comeback of epic proportions. The number one scoring offense, the Atlanta Falcons, had a 25 point lead on the New England Patriots with about twenty-one minutes left in the game. I’m sure there were many viewers (some even Patriot fans) who turned off the t.v. or changed channels. Those people missed one of the greatest football games ever, largely because they thought it was already over.

Believe it or not, as much of a football fan as I am (as well as a Boston sports fan), this example is not meant to instigate a discussion about sports. All artists, especially writers, know that the “game” is stacked against them. The world at times acts as though it doesn’t need Art, doesn’t require music to move to, doesn’t need painting a nd sculpture to work its way into our hearts, and doesn’t need the thought-provoking collection of words that writers so desperately try to achieve.

Often, we use the notion of just wanting to complete the novel as a kind of miniature motivation. We have a story to tell and, damn it, we’re going to write our story. But, oh well, the market is flooded; it’s probably not that good; I’ll never find an agent or an editor or a publisher; even if I do, it’s going to be just one of countless books in the whirlpool of the Amazon galaxy; and on and on and on. We dig our own 25 point deficit by relinquishing the victory to others.

If you look at the game, the Patriots didn’t just score 25 points on one play or even one series. They chipped away and maintained their persistence. They did what they trained to do only they started doing it better. Each minor success lead to a bigger one. A score or two brought them respectability. Two more scores tied up the game, making the playing field equal again. And, when they had the chance to win, they marched down the field, an overwhelming sense of confidence glowing like an aura within that stadium.

Wouldn’t we all like more reviews, bigger sales, larger royalty checks? Wouldn’t we give anything for more time to access social media, do blog tours, be at book signings, and, well, write the next one? That’s a large chunk of points to swallow in one setting. So, we do what we can a little at a time until it all becomes manageable, until we are in sight of our goal.

Persistence is the key. Make it your mantra.

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