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.

Progress.

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.

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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.

And we’re on to the next one.

Before I left the OWFI Conference last year, someone told me that publishers were looking for series characters. I had completed my Prohibition-era crime novel, Ark City Confidential but hadn’t yet offered it to anyone. There I was on the two and a half hour ride home to Wichita thinking about a series.

Without anything more than time and some jazz and lounge music, I cobbled out in my head the “scenarios” for three stories to follow. Obviously the most important one is the next one. What I have found so far is that it is harder than writing the original. There was a sense of discovery as the characters unfolded before me, revealing themselves, with minor epiphanies along the way. I remember the “Aha!” moment at work when I figured out how it would end.

So, now it’s published. It’s out there as a real world created in my imagination. Whereas stories can change and morph during a first, second, or third draft, I am finding that it is important to keep a sense of wonder about my main character, Baron Witherspoon, the disfigured World War I vet who is a beat cop in Arkansas City, KS. I can’t act as though “Oh, I told his story in the first book and now everybody knows him.” The truth is there is still more to learn. There is always more to learn such as it is with couples, friends, or co-workers. No matter how well you think you know someone, you must expect more in terms of depth that you have not yet fathomed.

The story is emerging slowly and the secondary characters are demanding their fair share of time. As long as they are interesting, they will be more than welcome in this world. And, as with the first, there is more historical research to do to maintain the proper sense of time and place. It’s really quite funny that I had been looking for something to work on after this one was completed. Looks like I’ll be busy for a while.

A Writer Defines Success As…?

Far be it from me to advise ANY writer what the definition of “success” is on any terms: personal, professional, spiritual, or anything else. Where you are in your career and what your goals are determine that? Did John Irving consider it a success to win an Oscar for adapting his own novel, “The Cider house Rules”, into a screenplay? How could John Kennedy Toole know his novel, “A Confederacy of Dunces”, would win the Pulitzer Prize over ten years after his suicide? And John O’Brien committed suicide two weeks AFTER learning that his novel, “Leaving Las Vegas”, was going to be made into a movie. The bottom line is that we can not judge.

I started with two self-published short novels, largely so I would have something to “offer” my parents who had been so supportive and encouraging throughout my life. Just to have them read those two minor works was a success to me. In a hospital shortly before being taken to hospice, my father inquired about my forthcoming novel through a traditional publisher. Regrettably he did not live to see it published. My mother got a copy and was upset when staff at the assisted care facility were negligent in returning it to her expediently. That was her prized possession. The second novel from that publisher was released after her passing.

Now, with the release of a new historical fiction through a new publisher, I have taken a step forward. Financially? No, not yet anyway. But professionally, I took a risk writing something with a greater degree of difficulty based on the necessary research. In working with a new publisher, The Wild Rose Press, I had the opportunity to work with an editor and graphic design team and a whole group of people who were sincerely intent on looking out for my interests and encouraging me to use all the resources they had available. How is it possible to NOT consider that a success?

Don’t get me wrong. There are the fantasies/dreams/hopes of the New York Times Best Sellers List and a movie deal and attending premieres. The ultimate success? Perhaps. As long as I continue to develop as a writer, tell and engaging story, and am able to connect with readers, everything ELSE that comes from that is just additional enrichment.

If you HAVE purchased “Ark City Confidential”, please leave a review either on the publisher’s site or at Amazon. This will go a long way to ensuring a measure of success.

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