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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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.

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.

This Will Do Just Fine…For Now

As a writer, do you crave being able to write full-time? Not working for someone else? Creating and managing your own schedule? Beholden to no one but yourself? Yeah, so do I.

Here’s how I imagine my typical day as a full-time writer:

I’d still wake up early because I’ve grown accustomed to working out in the morning. Shower and then spend time with my wife over coffee (because she still works a regular job). After she leaves, a couple of hours of writing. Or, if that day called for it, editing/revising. Late morning, I’d switch over to social networking. Not the aimless “let’s scroll through every account to find out what’s happening” that’s usually done. Instead, there would be a new blog post, directed Tweets, new photos on Instagram, maybe shoot out a newsletter to my e-mail list. (By then, I would have one.) A quick lunch. I love cooking but I don’t cook for me. If the wife had honey-dos or errands for me to run, that’s where the afternoon comes in. I remind her I’m happy to do them, but you’ve got to remember I’d be taking time out from my “job.” I might be able to get in another hour’s worth of writing before she gets home. That’s when I fix dinner. We catch up on the day. I clean up the dishes and it’s writing for the rest of the evening, maybe a little reading. A typical day not including readings, book signings, writer’s conferences, meetings with publishers/agents/editors/anyone important.

Alas…

That job that earns me a regular paycheck requires travel to and from, focus and dedication if I want to keep earning that paycheck. I still squeeze in a bit of networking on breaks and lunch, get some reading done, chat with co-workers who are writers or otherwise artistically inclined. My focus, however, is on the job and being good at it and keeping it. I get the evening to squeeze in writing, blog posts, more social connectivity. That’s what it is, folks. That’s what “Real Life” is. The big paragraph above, that’s a goal, sure, but one that requires an awful lot of work to get to.

Let me be clear: I do not bemoan my life. No matter what you do or desire to do, there is a lot of the mundane you must walk through, like a tropical jungle. And you have a machete in your hand and your chopping away at the vines and plants that are blocking your path. That line from Confucius: It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.

So, I am at a good place. Okay, I’m not a full-time writer. But this will do just fine. For now.

The 10

When I moved to Boston from Florida in 1990, I was literally starting my life over again. I had gotten divorced and had spent eight of the prior ten years in Florida, with it no longer feeling like a home and with nothing to hold me back. Moving back to Boston was like returning to my youth. Of course, at that time I was 28 and uncertain of my future. Nevertheless, it was going to be a fresh start.

Clothes, my writings, and very few personal possessions were my entire world. And books. However, since space was limited (as well as funds for shipping anything significant), I opted to bring only ten books. Twenty-seven years later, I do not recall what they were. Suffice it to say, my house is currently a small library.

It got me to thinking about what were the important books, or rather, what would be THE important books if ever I were in a position of “starting over.” I realized I could make a list now and then later, tomorrow or a month from now, that list might change. My only caveat was that I could not name “complete” volumes or collections, other than poetry. There would also have to be a viable reason for each: WHY were they important. After some thought, here is my list (at least for today) in no particular order:

1) The Bible, Old and New Testaments, King James Version. For the poetry and for the beauty of the language as well as a reminder of my ethical roots.

2) The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. A story of a spiritual journey (which I first read at a low point in my life) seems an obvious choice if I were on a new spiritual journey.

3) Ulysses by James Joyce. I’ve only started it, never delved too far in. Again, the language is magnificent and the story of a journey within a day is impressive.

4) The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Never has murder seemed to be written about with such panache. A major influence on my writing.

5) Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. The intricacies of thought coming from an insurance executive is stunning. Truly a craftsman.

6) Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. Such unbridled passion and lyricism. There is nothing like him today.

7) Jazz: A history of America’s Music by Ward and Burns. The companion piece to the documentary series. You can HEAR the music while reading.

8) The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Well, we need some good pulp fiction. Bitter, brutal, nasty, and raw.

9) The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. If you’re on a spiritual journey, it might be helpful to understand yourself.

10) On The Road by Jack Kerouac. A combination of lyricism, passion, brutal honesty, and unmitigated gall. And a reminder that the road doesn’t end.

That’s my list. I’d love to see yours.

“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.

Wow!

Today was the release date for my Prohibition-era crime novel, Ark City Confidential.

That was the first Wow!

From the time I announced signing a contract (on my birthday, no less) to the past six weeks of blog posts, cover reveals, teasers, info, and a book trailer, there has been an amazing response, a kind of enthusiastic encouragement mixed with anticipation.

That’s been an ongoing Wow!

But today: co-workers with hugs and pats on the back; messages from family locally and afar; comments from old friends and newer ones; and responses from Facebook friends I have not yet met. I think there is a realization that writers are not out to compete so much as succeed. Granted, every writer has a different definition of success. However, I take most of these comments to mean “Hey, you did it. You accomplished something. You should be proud of yourself.”

And I am. And that’s been the biggest Wow! of all.

The Process, or My Process

I just completed the fourth draft of my historical crime fiction, two days in advance of attending the OWFI Writer’s Conference. The last-minute finish has turned my attention to the processes I used on this particular work.

First, the story idea came from extended conversations with my wife’s uncle who lives in Arkansas City, KS. He spoke about a town often referred to as “Little Chicago” and underground tunnels. These tidbits were too interesting to pass up. (It was similar to the discussions I had with my brother-in-law regarding the judicial and penal systems that gave rise to my second novel, The 9 mm Solution.)

This was to be a historical crime fiction which basically caused me to strip away all forms of technology as well as my understanding of how things work today. Language, transportation, police procedural — all these things are not the same as they were in 1934 in rural Kansas. So, after creating an outline of characters and basic plot, I found websites for gangster and jazz-age slang, photos of vehicles and guns, and images of Arkansas City, KS in that time period.

The next thing to do was write. It was like blazing through a jungle with a machete and clearing a path for myself that lead, hopefully, to the other side. There were times when the story got muddled down but I pressed on until, about three-quarters of the way through, an epiphany came that showed me the ending.

The second draft was a grammar and language clean up, making sure tense stayed consistent, removing any modernisms of speech that had sneaked in, removing redundant expressions, confirming logic in terms of time frame and directions. It was like cleaning up the mess from a project.

But then came the third draft. This was like being a mortician and making the corpse presentable for viewing. (Strange comparison, I know, but the first thing that popped into my head.) I’m not excessive when it comes to description. This is, after all, hard-boiled crime fiction. Analogy works better than description in this style. It as important to give the readers the sense of time and place and to enhance the emotional content. This was the part of taking the bones of a good story and smoothing out the flesh.

It was then I stopped. Briefly. Four beta readers later resulted in the fourth draft. Enhancement of two small aspects based on feedback. It was nothing that altered the story and required any major plot revisions. This was like adding an appetizer and a dessert to the overall meal. With those minor elements added, I completed a final read through, strengthening a sentence here and there. In the end, from first to last draft, I went from 58K words to 65K. Of course, since I will be attending a conference, I also created a pitch. I am not as confident of that as I am of the work itself.

I am not as comfortable discussing my particular process for two reasons. First, I largely intuit it as I go for each project. There are different degrees of evaluation required based on the nature of the work. Additionally, I find too many people discussing the process from a purely academic standpoint. The semantics and the actualities are often two different things. Nevertheless, Ark City Confidential is ready to go. Let’s see how far we can take it.

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